DUBAI (Reuters) - Qatar said on Tuesday it will not hand Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi - accused by the Iraqi authorities of running death squads - over to his own government.
Iraq, whose sectarian divisions risk reoopening over the case against Hashemi, one of the senior Sunni Arab politicians in a central government led by Shi'ite Muslims, had demanded Qatar return him a day earlier.
But Qatar said it was unable to comply with the request.
"It would be unwise for Mr Hashemi to be turned over by Qatar to Iraq," the state QNA news agency quoted Minister of State for International Cooperation Khalid Mohamed al-Attiyah as saying. "Diplomatic norms and Tareq al-Hashemi's position and the immunity he has prevent Qatar from doing so."
Hashemi arrived in Qatar on Sunday from semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, where he took refuge late last year after judicial authorities in Baghdad issued a warrant for his arrest. His office has said he will return to Kurdistan after a Gulf trip that will include other countries as well.
He has denied the allegations against him and has said his post means he is immune from prosecution anyway.
Iraq's government, led by a Shi'ite party with close ties to Shi'ite-led Iran, is viewed with suspicion in Gulf Arab countries, whose Sunni Muslim monarchies have accused Iran of seeking to expand its influence in the region.
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. Qatar said it was a deliberate message to Baghdad, signaling its discontent about Iraq's 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 fuelled by a civil war in 2006-2007.
Many saw the move as an attempt by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to shore up his power base at the expense of the country's Sunni population, after the removal of Saddam Hussein, who concentrated power in the hands of his Sunni relatives.
(Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Andrew Osborn)