BAGHDAD Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and some of his bodyguards have been charged with murdering six judges and a series of other killings, a judiciary spokesman said on Monday.
Hashemi, one of Iraq's top Sunni Muslim politicians, fled Baghdad in December when the Shi'ite-led central government issued an arrest warrant for him, accusing him of running death squads.
He is now in Istanbul in Turkey and is not expected to attend the trial when it begins on Thursday.
Iraq's delicately-balanced ruling coalition of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds began to strain in December after U.S. troops left and the government tried to remove Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and made the accusations against Hashemi.
Hashemi initially escaped to the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where the authorities refused to hand him over.
The central government and the Kurdish region have long-running disputes over political autonomy, oil rights and contested territories.
"There are many crimes that Hashemi and his guards are accused of and there were confessions obtained, including on the assassinations of six judges, mostly from Baghdad," Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, judiciary council spokesman, said in a statement.
The statement said that 13 of Hashemi's bodyguards had been released for lack of evidence and another 73 remained in custody.
Birqdar said Hashemi's trial would start on Thursday and would initially focus on three other charges of murder, that had already been announced, involving "the assassination of a general manager in the Ministry of National Security, an officer in the interior ministry and a female lawyer".
Hashemi has offered to stand trial in the city of Kirkuk - controlled by Sunnis and Kurds - but said he will not face the charges in Baghdad because he believes the courts are controlled by the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
(Reporting by Raheem Salman; Editing by Barry Malone and Andrew Heavens)