Iraq's fugitive vice president arrived Wednesday in Saudi Arabia hours after he vowed in a television interview that he would return home.
Tariq al-Hashemi, the top Sunni official in Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, flew to Saudi Arabia from neighboring Qatar where he stayed for four days, the official Saudi news agency reported. He was greeted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, according to a Saudi Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. He had no further details on the visit.
Al-Hashemi is wanted in Iraq on terror charges for allegedly running death squads against Shiite pilgrims, government officials and security forces. Iraqi authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in December, touching off a political crisis in Baghdad and deepening the country's sectarian divide just days after the U.S. military withdrawal.
Al-Hashemi, who has denied the charges and says they are politically motivated, took refuge in the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq, out of the jurisdiction of the central government in Baghdad.
He told the pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera in an interview that the charges were designed to "push me out of the political process" and launched a scathing attack on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"I will return to Kurdistan without a doubt. I will never abandon my country," al-Hashemi said, adding that he would be ready to leave Kurdistan if he felt his presence there was a burden to its government.
He said that al-Maliki, a hardline Shiite who has been in power for nearly six years, "has so much hatred and malice inside him that go beyond the political differences between me and him."
Al-Maliki, he added, was discriminating against the nation's once-powerful Sunni minority and that his policies posed a risk to Iraq's unity. Also for sectarian reasons, he charged, al-Maliki was allowing Iraq's airspace to be used by Iranian aircraft to ferry weapons to the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria. He provided no evidence to support his claim.
He also claimed that Iraqi Shiite militiamen were fighting alongside the Syrian regime's forces. He gave no details.
Syria has a Sunni majority but the ruling Assad dynasty are Alawites, followers of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiism. Assad came to power in 2000, succeeding his father Hafez who ruled the country for about 30 years.
Al-Hashemi's visit to Qatar was his first trip abroad since the allegations were leveled against him. Iraq called on Qatar to extradite him so he can stand trial in Baghdad. Doha refused the request.
Associated Press writer Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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