A political crisis is looming in Iraq as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatened to resign if the Parliament did not give a vote of no-confidence against another leading Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is deputy prime minister, an Al Arabiya correspondent reported.
Maliki over the weekend asked parliament for the vote against Mutlaq on the grounds that he lacked faith in the political process.
Iraq on Monday issued an arrest warrant for its Sunni vice president on anti-terror charges, just days after the last U.S. troops left the country.
The warrant was issued against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, leading to fears for the unity cabinet after President Barack Obama declared America was leaving behind a “stable” Iraq with a government elected by the people.
Hashemi and Mutlaq are both leaders of the Iraqiya bloc, a secular group backed by minority Sunnis, which joined Maliki’s unity government only reluctantly and recently boycotted parliament sessions after complaining of being marginalized.
The United States expressed concern early Tuesday over the arrest warrant.
“We’re monitoring reports that an arrest warrant has been issued for vice-president Tareq al-Hashimi in Iraq,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, according to AFP.
“We’re talking to all of the parties and have expressed our concern regarding these developments.”
“We’re urging all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue, in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process.”
At least 13 of Hashemi’s bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks, though it was unclear how many were still being held. Hashemi’s office said only three were arrested.
The move risks unraveling Iraq’s fragile power-sharing deal among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs who have struggled to overcome tensions just a few years after sectarian slaughter drove the country to the edge of a civil war.
Interior Ministry spokesman, Major General Adel Daham, told a news conference confessions by suspects identified as Hashemi’s bodyguards linked the vice president to killings and attacks on Iraqi government and security officials, according to Reuters.
“An arrest warrant was issued for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi according to Article 4 of the terrorism law and is signed by five judges... this warrant should be executed,” Daham said, waving a copy of the document in front of reporters.
The ministry showed taped confessions, aired on state-run Iraqiya television and other local media, of men it claimed were members of Hashemi’s security detail. The men said they had been paid by his office to carry out killings.
The three men shown on television detailed the assassinations they were told to carry out by Hashemi’s aides including planting roadside bombs and drive-by shootings of security and government officials.
One man said he was handed $3,000 as a reward by Hashemi himself.
But the identity of the men could not be independently confirmed.
Hashemi’s Iraqiya bloc, meanwhile, said it would boycott cabinet to protest the “dictatorship” of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, after earlier saying it was suspending its participation in parliament, AFP reported.
The political struggle between Shiite Prime Minister Maliki and his Sunni rivals in the country’s delicate power-sharing deal has intensified during the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops nearly nine years after the invasion.
In a statement earlier on Monday, Hashemi accused Maliki’s government of “deliberate harassment” after his plane was delayed for three hours at Baghdad airport. He had been heading for the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya to meet the Iraqi president.
“The vice-president has been very patient and is waiting for a reasonable explanation from the government parties concerned,” the statement said.
Fearing a deepening crisis that could push Iraq back into sectarian turmoil, senior Iraqi politicians were holding talks with Maliki and other leaders to contain the dispute.
The U.S. ambassador in Iraq was in contact with senior Iraqi leaders, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said, without providing details on which figures or the matters under discussion, Reuters reported.
Violence has ebbed sharply since the peak of attacks in 2006-07 when suicide bombings and hit-squads claimed thousands of victims in tit-for-tat killing between Sunni and Shiite communities.
But sectarian tensions are close to the surface and still color many aspects of Iraqi political life.
The completion of the U.S. withdrawal on Sunday left many Iraqis fearful that a shaky peace deal between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis might collapse and reignite sectarian violence.
Many Sunnis, who were in power under Saddam, feel shunted aside by the rise of Shiites after the invasion. Already some Sunni-dominated regions in Iraq are seeking more autonomy from the central government, chaffing against what they see as an increasingly authoritarian tack taken by Maliki.