World News

Iraqi VP, facing terror trial, sees "black comedy"

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Judges ordered one of Iraq’s two vice-presidents tried for terrorism Monday in a move the accused, Tareq al-Hashemi, dismissed as part of a “black comedy” devised by sectarian adversaries in government.

In a televised address from the autonomous Kurdish region where he took refuge two months ago, Hashemi, a leader of the once-dominant Sunni minority, again dismissed charges that he and his entourage ran sectarian death squads and called the case a political “fabrication” by the Shi’ite-led authorities.

Violence surged after the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered Hashemi’s arrest in December. Some Sunnis accuse the Shi’ite premier of trying to lock them out of power.

Maliki’s fragile coalition of Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs and ethnic Kurds brokered a measure of calm. But a suicide car bombing Sunday that killed 19 at a Baghdad police academy renewed fears of a return to the blood-letting of 2006-2007.

“All of these accusations against members of my protection detail are a black comedy,” Hashemi said of a report last week by the Supreme Judicial Council that concluded he was complicit in 150 attacks on security forces and other Shi’ite targets.

Monday, judges in the capital said they were ready in three of those 150 cases to try Hashemi and one of his sons-in-law in absentia in Baghdad on charges of terrorism.

Hashemi blamed others for crimes for which more than 70 people associated with him have been detained. He accused Shi’ite politicians of using the allegations against him “in a sectarian manner ... to prepare for the next election.”

Hashemi’s critics accuse him of ordering new suicide attacks in order to pressure the government to negotiate with him.

Saying some of his aides had been forced into confessions, Hashemi said he would not come for trial to Baghdad, where he accuses judges of doing Maliki’s bidding. However, he was willing to leave Kurdistan for a trial in Kirkuk, a northern city where Kurds and Sunni Arabs dominate the population.

Failure to agree to his request would mean judicial authorities were denying him a fair trial, Hashemi said. In that case, he added without elaborating, he would “turn immediately to the international community.”

The United States, the withdrawal of whose forces in December coincided with the legal moves against Hashemi, has urged Iraqis to work together to overcome their differences.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein by invading U.S. forces in 2003 ended the traditional political dominance of Iraq’s Sunni minority and elections have ensured leaders from the Shi’ite majority have taken the most powerful post, of prime minister.

The constitution gives limited powers to the president, a Kurd, who has two vice-presidents, a Sunni and a Shi’ite.

Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Patrick Markey and Alastair Macdonald