BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Baghdad told Qatar on Monday to return fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, whose case has fuelled political tensions that are threatening to upset Iraq's fragile sectarian balance.
Hashemi, one of Iraq's top Sunni politicians, has been sheltering in the autonomous northern Kurdistan region after the Shi'ite-led central government issued an arrest warrant for him in December on charges he ran death squads.
On Sunday, he left Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the predominantly Sunni Arab Gulf state of Qatar, which Iraq said was in breach of Iraqi law. Hashemi's office said he would return after visiting several countries in the region.
"Qatar's receiving Tareq al-Hashemi is unacceptable and it should review its position and return him back to Iraq to be tried," Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told reporters at a press conference.
"Allowing Hashemi to leave the region for Qatar is a clear challenge to Iraqi law and Iraqi courts."
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, which has close ties to Shi'ite neighbor Iran, is viewed with suspicion by Gulf Arab countries, which are ruled by Sunni Muslim monarchies.
At last week's Arab League summit in Baghdad, Kuwait's emir was the only Gulf leader to attend while Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent low-level delegations, which the latter said was a message to Baghdad about its treatment of its Sunni minority.
The warrant for Hashemi sparked a political crisis in Iraq in December and threatened to upset a power-sharing deal among Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites that aimed to ease sectarian tensions.
Many Iraqi Sunnis saw the move as an attempt by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to shore up his power at the expense of the country's Sunni population. Iraq's Shi'ite majority ascended to power following the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by John Stonestreet)