BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, at the centre of a political row that has jeopardized Iraq's sectarian balance, left the autonomous northern Kurdish region for Qatar on Sunday, a statement from his office said.
Hashemi, one of the top politicians from the Sunni minority, is accused by Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government of running death squads, a charge he denies. He has been holed up in the Kurdish zone since Baghdad issued an arrest warrant for him in December.
The government includes Kurds and Sunnis under a power sharing deal designed to calm tensions that led to extreme sectarian violence in 2006-07 when thousands of Iraqis were killed.
In a clear defiance to the arrest warrant, Hashemi's office said he had left the country to visit predominantly Sunni Qatar.
"Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi left on Sunday morning ... heading to Doha in the brotherly state of Qatar in accordance with an invitation he received previously," the statement said.
"It (the visit) is expected to last for a few days, then the vice president will visit other countries, which will be announced later, then he will come back ... to his residency in Iraq's Kurdistan."
While the crisis has abated somewhat in recent weeks, Hashemi has remained in the Kurdish region, saying he cannot receive a fair trial in Baghdad.
The Kurds, who have their own courts and security forces, have been drawn into Hashemi's dispute with the central government by sheltering him.
(Reporting by Aseel Kami; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Maria Golovnina)