Hashemi accuses Maliki of dragging Iraq into new ‘sectarian war’
SULAIMANIYA (Iraq) - 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.
"Today the outcome of this crisis, which was unfortunately blown up by the prime minister, is very dangerous," Hashemi said, 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 Shiite 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.
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, Shiites and Kurds all remained represented in the government in Baghdad.
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."
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.
Meanwhile, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani said Saturday that the country's Sunni vice president would stand trial only if promises were made regarding its fairness.
Iraqiya, the mostly Sunni-backed political bloc of Hashemi and deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak, has boycotted parliament and the cabinet in protest at Maliki's alleged centralisation of power.
"Mr Tareq al-Hashemi is in the hospitality of the president of the republic," a statement from Talabani's office said.
"Hashemi will appear in front of justice at any time and anywhere in the country where there will be reassurances regarding the processes of justice, investigation and trial."
The statement did not specify what specific reassurances would be required.
Iraq's political crisis, coupled with a spate of attacks on Thursday in Baghdad which killed 60 people, has heightened sectarian tensions in the country less than a week after US troops completed their withdrawal.
Hashemi, who has disputed the charges, meanwhile, blamed collusion within the government and security forces for Thursday's violence, the deadliest in more than four months.
"This style of terrorist attack, it's well beyond even Al-Qaeda to do it," he told the BBC's Persian Service in comments published on Saturday.
"What has been done is well-organised, the people who plant all these explosives. They went freely, without any obstacles, regardless of many checkpoints that we do have, and simultaneously all these car bombs and explosives went off in one time."
He continued: "Those who were behind all these explosions and incidents (were a) part in the security of the government. I'm sure about that."
On Friday, Hashemi blamed Maliki for starting "a national crisis, and it's not easy to control," and likened the premier's behaviour to that of now-executed leader Saddam Hussein.
Maliki convened a meeting of his crisis-response cell on Saturday, a statement from his office said, in which he admitted Iraq's security forces must examine whether "there are members in these forces cooperating with terrorist groups."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, meanwhile, said Hashemi should stay in Iraq, but noted Ankara would not turn him away if he requested asylum.
"What would be appropriate for us is that Mr Hashemi should stay within the Iraqi territory," he said in remarks broadcast by the state-run Turkish Radio and Television.
Davutoglu said the gravity of the allegation faced by Hashemi could not be minimised, and "must be clarified as soon as possible."
Earlier on Saturday, anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr launched an "honour convention" which called for national unity and peace in Iraq following the US withdrawal.
The pact was signed by numerous lawmakers, academics and tribal leaders.