QALACHOWLAN, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, wanted on charges he led death squads, called the case a plot to destroy opponents of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that could reignite the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07.
Iraq has been plunged into a political crisis in the week since the final U.S. troops withdrew, after Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government unveiled an arrest warrant for Hashemi, who left Baghdad for the semi-autonomous Kurdish north of the country.
Maliki also asked parliament to fire his Sunni deputy prime minister, sidelining Iraq’s two most powerful Sunni Arab leaders and potentially undoing a shaky power-sharing deal that Washington hoped would keep peace after nine years of war.
“Today the outcome of this crisis, which was unfortunately blown up by the prime minister, is very dangerous,” Hashemi told Reuters in an interview at a guesthouse of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, in the Kurdish north’s Sulaimaniya province.
“Today Iraqis live under the atmosphere of sectarian tension that we lived through in the hard years of 2005-2007,” he said.
Speaking about himself and his Sunni Arab community, Hashemi added: “Mr Maliki knows the supporters of Tareq al-Hashemi and which community he belongs to, and therefore he should have thought about the negative consequences of these issues.”
Violence in Iraq has subsided since the sectarian civil war of 2006-07, when Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militia killed thousands of civilians each month, but without U.S. troops to act as a buffer, many Iraqis now fear a return to those days.
At least 72 people were killed in bombings across Baghdad in mainly Shi’ite neighborhoods on Thursday, in the first sign of a possible violent backlash against Maliki’s moves.
The main goal of U.S. policymakers in the final years of the war was to prevent a recurrence of that bloodshed by ensuring that Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds all remained represented in the government in Baghdad.
A power-sharing deal reached a year ago kept Maliki in office at the helm of a fragile unity coalition. But that appears to have unraveled just as the final U.S. troops pulled out a week ago. Hashemi’s Iraqiya bloc, the main Sunni-backed group has suspended its participation in parliament.
Hashemi said the timing of the accusations against him to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal was “deliberate.”
“The target is clear, a political hit for Tareq al-Hashemi... The political dimension for this is to get rid of all those who oppose Nuri al-Maliki, it is clear. So Iraq can stay in the grip of one-man rule and one-party rule.”
Shi’ite leaders say the case against Hashemi is criminal and not motivated by politics. It cannot be negotiated because it is now with the courts.
Iraq’s interior ministry broadcast taped confessions it said were from Hashemi’s security detail, talking about payments Hashemi made to them to carry out assassinations and bombings.
Hashemi denied all charges which he said were “fabricated.” He said the three bodyguards worked for him but the confessions showed on Iraqi TV were “taken by force.”
Hashemi said he had no plans to seek political asylum or flee Iraq, but had requested that the case against him be moved to a court in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, rather than Baghdad where “the executive power controls the judiciary.”
“If they are seeking justice, let them agree to my request and I will stand trial and will accept any verdict by Kurdistan’s courts,” he said. “They are not part of Maliki’s project and they are not part of Hashemi’s project. Kurdistan will be the fair judge in this issue.”
Asked if he would consider leaving Iraq or seeking asylum, he said: “This is my country, these are not my thoughts and not in my plans... I will not run from justice.”
Looking weary during the interview, Hashemi said he had initially come to Sulaimaniya with a small suitcase and two suits - and had told his wife he would be back in Baghdad after 48 hours.
He planned to stay in the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone for now, and his family had left Iraq after a wave of raids by security forces on his house and office and arrests of his staff, he said.
Editing by Patrick Markey