Iraq's Shiite-led government on Sunday demanded that authorities in the semiautonomous Kurdish region hand over the country's top Sunni official to face terrorism charges, turning up the heat in a political crisis that is stoking sectarian tensions.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi traveled to the Kurdish north in December just as the last American troops were leaving the country and charges against him were being drawn up.
The government accuses him of running a hit squad that assassinated government and security officials years ago _ allegations he denies. Fellow Sunnis, who made up the dominant political class under Saddam Hussein, see the charges as part of an effort to sideline them.
The resulting political crisis has been accompanied by a rise in coordinated car bomb and suicide attacks targeting Shiites that have claimed dozens of lives in recent weeks.
A judicial spokesman for the Kurds, Dadyar Hameed, said authorities there received a request from Baghdad on Sunday to hand over al-Hashemi and 14 of his associates.
Although the Kurdish region is part of Iraq, it enjoys considerable autonomy. The Kurds have their own security force, and police under the control of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki do not operate there.
As long as al-Hashemi remains a guest of his boss, Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, he is effectively out of Baghdad's reach.
Hameed declined to say if the Kurds would comply with the Interior Ministry request, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
A senior official in the Kurdish region's Interior Ministry was less diplomatic.
"We are not policemen working for al-Maliki to hand over al-Hashemi," the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Shortly before the arrest warrant was issued in December, state-run television aired what it said were confessions by men said to be working as bodyguards for al-Hashemi. The men said they killed Baghdad police officers and officials working in the health and foreign ministries in exchange for payoffs from al-Hashemi.
The hits allegedly began during the height of the war in 2006 and 2007, when widespread violence between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites pitted neighbors against neighbors and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Al-Hashemi has dismissed the charges as politically motivated and an effort to embarrass him, and says the supposed confessions implicating him were fabricated. He has said he cannot get a fair trial in Baghdad.
President Talabani came to the defense of his deputy in an interview with Al-Arabiya television that aired Sunday.
"Tariq al-Hashemi is not a fugitive. He is still the vice president. He is only accused, not convicted," Talabani said. He added that al-Hashemi is prepared to face trial in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
The dispute has paralyzed Iraq's government. Most of al-Hashemi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc is boycotting parliament and Cabinet meetings over what it sees as an effort by al-Maliki to further consolidate power and sideline them now that American troops are gone.
Talabani said he expects talks between the country's feuding blocs aimed at resolving the crisis to get under way in Baghdad later this week.
Associated Press writers Mazin Yahya in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.