Iraq's Sunni vice president on Monday asked for popular support to fight government charges that he commandeered death squads and said he would continue to defy arrest with the help of the nation's powerful Kurds in a showdown that tests the limits of Baghdad's reach.
The government's case against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi deepens tensions in a country still splintered by Sunni and Shiite sectarian rivalries. It now also threatens to draw a new wedge between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and Kurdish leaders in Iraq's north who refuse to hand over al-Hashemi for trial.
In a half-hour speech from the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north, al-Hashemi described the charges against him as "politically motivated" and said he would not return to Baghdad.
"I renew my determination to stand in a fair trial in an atmosphere that allows revealing the whole truth, away from any attempts of fraud or deceit or pressure," al-Hashemi said in his televised speech from Irbil. He vowed to remain in the Kurdish region.
Al-Maliki media adviser Ali al-Moussawi scoffed at al-Hashemi's speech.
"The only way is to turn himself in to the judicial authorities and stand before a court and present whatever evidence that proves he is innocent," al-Moussawi said.
Last week, a judicial panel in Baghdad concluded that al-Hashemi was behind at least 150 bombings and assassinations since 2005. The panel's findings stemmed from a review of a December warrant for al-Hashemi's arrest that accused him of paying his bodyguards $3,000 to kill security forces and government officials.
The warrant was announced the day after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, raising eyebrows among critics who called it al-Maliki's first attempt at a power grab without fear of American interference.
Al-Hashemi was visiting the Kurdish region when the arrest warrant was announced, and has remained there ever since. The region is part of Iraq but has its own security forces and has for generations given asylum to people persecuted by Baghdad _ though mostly during Saddam Hussein's regime.
Al-Maliki and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani have had a rocky relationship for years over how to share disputed land, oil revenues and federal funding. Barzani has shown no indication that he plans on handing over al-Hashemi to Baghdad, and officials in Irbil say doing so could worsen sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.
Sunnis see the attack on al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni political official in the country, as proof that they'll never be allowed to share real power in the Shiite-dominated country. Many Shiites view Sunnis as remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime with ties to terrorists.
Sending al-Hashemi back to Baghdad "would worsen the crisis instead of ending it," said Kurdish government spokesman Fuad Hussein.
"Al-Hashemi is our guest. The last thing Iraq needs now is new sectarian problems," Hussein said in an interview last week.
That is likely to infuriate Baghdad.
"Nobody should use a legal matter or case as a tool to press the government. Justice should be kept away from political agendas," Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani, a lawmaker from the Shiite party al-Maliki heads. He said all of Iraq's jurisdictions _ including Kurdistan _ should respect the court's decisions.
In the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, residents took a certain glee at standing firm against Baghdad. Sweets seller Saman Karim said it's likely that Barzani is more interested in snubbing al-Maliki than he is in helping al-Hashemi.
"The Kurds have no sympathy toward al-Hashemi _ they just want to humiliate the central government," Karim said.
How that will shape Iraq's already unstable political balance is anyone's guess. The Kurdish parties hold 51 of the 325 seats in parliament, and are generally considered kingmakers in most tiebreakers facing the legislature.
Political analyst Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said the issue likely will cause the relationship between al-Maliki and Barzani to deteriorate even further.
"It is clear that al-Hashemi expects to enjoy immunity from detention in the Kurdish areas, which is going to create additional problems for the long-standing but shaky alliance between the Kurds and al-Maliki," Visser said.
It's also possible the Kurds will use al-Hashemi as a bargaining tool, said Kurdish human rights activist Omar Mohammed. He predicted the Kurds eventually will hand over al-Hashemi in exchange for something it wants from Baghdad.
Al-Hashemi said he wanted the trial to be moved to the northern city of Kirkuk, which is ethnically shared among Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, and where the investigators or jury would not be tainted by Baghdad's accusations.
He also lashed out at the judicial panel, which was appointed by Iraq's highest court to investigate the charges. The panel's results aren't legally binding but they have been passed along to a criminal court which could choose to charge al-Hashemi with even more crimes. The panel touted its findings as the first independent review of al-Hashemi's case, but critics and some experts said its judges were named by officials sympathetic to al-Maliki.
"Our judicial system is still working to satisfy some influential people," al-Hashemi said.
Jakes reported from Baghdad. Associated Press Writers Bushra Juhi, Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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