Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday called on authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region to hand over Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who is wanted on allegations of running a death squad.
“We call for the government of the Kurdistan region to take its responsibility and hand over Hashemi to the justice system,” Maliki told a news conference in Baghdad. “We do not accept any interference in Iraqi justice.”
Maliki also rejected Hashemi’s calls for Arab League representatives to observe the investigation and any questioning, telling reporters: “This is a criminal case, and there is no need for the Arab League and the world to have a role in this.”
Maliki threatened in a press conference to replace ministers belonging to the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc if they continued to boycott the national unity cabinet.
“Ministers have no right to suspend their membership in the government because they will be considered resigned,” he said at a news conference in Baghdad. “In the next cabinet meeting, if they do not come back, we will appoint replacements.”
The Iraq war may be over for the U.S. military but may not be for the Iraqis or for the U.S. government as it tries to avert sectarian strife after the departure of American troops.
On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden stressed an “urgent need” for Maliki to meet with leaders of other political blocs in Iraq to help resolve potentially explosive sectarian differences emerging in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal as Iraq’s vice president denied terror charges against him and vowed to defend himself.
The White House says Biden spoke by telephone with Maliki and with Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, according to The Associated Press.
The political climate in Baghdad has been deteriorating in the wake of charges against Iraq’s Sunni vice president that he organized death squads. The accusations by the Shiite-dominated government raised fears that the government could collapse.
The White House says Biden emphasized U.S. support for an inclusive government in Iraq and the importance of Iraqi leaders to follow the rule of law.
Biden, who visited Iraq earlier this month ahead of the pullout of U.S. forces, said the United States was monitoring conditions in Iraq closely and remained committed to a long-term strategic partnership.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab vice president denied terror charges against him and vowed to defend himself in a defiant news conference as rival leaders called for urgent talks to resolve a worsening crisis.
Just days after U.S. forces left the country and on the eve of the national unity government’s first anniversary Wednesday, Iraq’s fragile political truce looked as if it was already unraveling, according to AFP.
A warrant was issued for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi’s arrest on Monday, spurring his Iraqiya bloc to say it would boycott cabinet meetings.
And over the weekend, Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, called for the sacking of deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni who has branded the Shiite-led government a “dictatorship.”
U.S. voices concern
The White House voiced concern over the developments as U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey met Iraqi leaders, although Maliki’s office ruled out any mediation over the charges against Hashemi.
“I swear to God that I never committed a sin when it comes to Iraqi blood,” Hashemi told a news conference in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
“I suggest transferring the case to Kurdistan. On this basis, I will be ready to face trial.”
He called for representatives of the Arab League to take part in the investigation and any questioning, and said apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were “false” and “politicized.’
Officials issued the warrant for Hashemi’s arrest on Monday, after earlier banning him from travelling overseas.
At least 13 of the vice president’s bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks, although it was unclear how many remain in custody.
Hashemi’s office said only three were arrested, and has complained of “intentional harassment” in the form of blockade of his home by security forces for several weeks, as well as other incidents.
State television has shown footage of what the interior ministry said were confessions by Hashemi’s bodyguards to planning and carrying out terror attacks, and receiving funding and support from the vice president.
The Baghdad security operations command issued two statements on Tuesday, saying security forces would carry out the warrant against Hashemi, and claimed an insurgent who developed car bombs had provided details of the vice president's involvement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States had “expressed concern regarding these developments.”
U.S. officials in Washington also confirmed that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus, the former U.S. military commander credited with containing sectarian violence in Iraq, had paid a visit to Baghdad in recent days.
But officials said it was a previously scheduled trip to Iraq and Afghanistan and that Petraeus was not engaged in political talks in Baghdad.
Maliki and other leaders have called for talks to resolve the political crisis, but the premier’s spokesman told AFP he would not accept any mediation over the charges against Hashemi.
“The prime minister will not compromise the blood of Iraqis, no matter what the price,” Ali Mussawi said.
“The justice system should carry out its role. No one should block the work of justice, and we must allow it to complete all stages of the investigation in Hashemi’s case.”
Maliki has also called for Mutlaq, like Hashemi a Sunni Arab and a member of the Iraqiya bloc, to be sacked after Mutlaq said the premier was “worse than Saddam Hussein.”
Lawmakers are due to consider Maliki’s request to fire Mutlaq on Jan. 3.
Iraqiya said it would boycott the cabinet to protest against Maliki’s “dictatorship,” although it has not pulled out of the government.
The premier’s call for urgent talks was echoed by parliament speaker Nujaifi and Kurdish regional President Massud Barzani.
In November 2010, Barzani hosted a meeting of Iraqi leaders at which the foundations of the national unity government were laid, ending months of deadlock following elections in March that year, with a cabinet eventually named on Dec. 21.
The bloc, which holds 82 of the 325 seats in parliament and controls nine ministerial posts, had earlier said it was suspending its participation in the legislature.
Iraqiya, which garnered most of its support from the Sunni minority and emerged with the most seats in March 2010 elections, was out-maneuvered for the premiership by Maliki who finished second in the polls but subsequently broadened his power base by striking a deal with another faction.
The political party loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which met Barzani on Tuesday, lamented that the timing of the crisis, after U.S. troops completed their withdrawal from the country early on Sunday, suggested American forces had held the political system together.
The timing is hardly convenient for U.S. President Barack Obama as he has sought in a series of appearances to mark the end of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq nearly nine years after the invasion ordered by former President George W. Bush.
In the latest such event, Obama took part in a ceremony on Tuesday at a military base near Washington at which the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq was formally returned home, Reuters reported.
Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have argued the decision to bring all U.S. troops home by the end of this year - a date originally set by Bush - had aggravated the chances of instability in Iraq.
Politics aside, the stark revival of sectarian tensions at the highest level of Iraqi politics poses a fresh challenge for U.S. policymakers in a strategic oil-rich country.
“One of the concerns that people have had for some time is that without a large U.S. presence, the likelihood of sectarian score-settling in Iraq would increase,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Alterman said he did not know how much evidence there may be to support the arrest warrant against Hashemi, who has been accused of suspected ties to assassinations and bombings.
Obama’s political opponents this week renewed criticism of the troop withdrawal, which the president ordered after negotiations failed with the Iraqi government on a follow-on U.S. force of several thousand troops.
“The risk of increasing sectarian violence following the president’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces has always been real, which is one of the reasons our commanders recommended a credible force remain in Iraq after the end of the year,” said a spokesman for House of Representatives Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican.
“But in the end the Iraqis will have to want security and liberty for all of their citizens as much as we do, and shape their own destiny,” said the spokesman, Claude Chafin.