By Patrick Markey
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A fugitive vice president condemned to death and rallying opposition to Iraq's "sectarian" prime minister, fresh bloodshed in the streets and the entire Middle East divided by religion over the war across the border in Syria - Nuri al-Maliki has no easy task in holding his government, and his nation, together.
The Iraqi premier was denounced on Monday by Sunni Muslim Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi as a conspirator and oppressor, in league with fellow Shi'ites in Iran and driven by religious hatred to engineer the death sentence handed down on Hashemi on Sunday for murders committed by sectarian death squads.
The verdict against a mainstream leader of Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority was accompanied by bombings and attacks on Shi'ite targets that killed about 115, making it one of the bloodiest days since U.S. troops pulled out in December. Maliki's government was quick to blame Sunni insurgents.
Hashemi, speaking from exile in Turkey, called for "calm" but firm opposition to a premier whose efforts to stitch together an administration uniting Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds have looked distinctly ragged since an arrest warrant for the vice president was issued the very day after the Americans left.
"Yesterday Prime Minister Maliki and his ... judiciary concluded the final phase of the theatrical campaign against me using a kangaroo court," Hashemi told a news conference in Ankara. "My people, don't give Maliki and those who stand behind him the chance ... They want to make this a sectarian conflict.
"Oppose his conspiracies and provocation calmly."
Iraq's domestic troubles pitch the majority Shi'ites, long oppressed until U.S. forces deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003, against Saddam's fellow Sunni Arabs, as well as a substantial ethnic Kurdish minority. Tensions are particularly high over the distribution of Iraq's potentially massive oil wealth.
But the country of 32 million also straddles the region's ethnic and sectarian faultline across which the Sunni, Western-allied leaders of most other Arab states confront Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran and allies including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
MALIKI IN CONTROL
For many Iraqi Sunni leaders, the Hashemi case was a clear example of political manipulation of the judiciary by a Shi'ite leader who they say controls the security forces by keeping a personal grip on the vital defense and interior ministries.
Since the fall of Saddam nine years ago and the rise of Shi'ite leaders in U.S.-sponsored elections, many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been sidelined. Sunni politicians accuse Maliki of failing to fulfill U.S.-backed deals to share power, a charge Maliki's backers dismiss, pointing to Sunnis in key posts.
But Maliki has shown himself to be a tough adversary.
A former Arabic teacher who worked his way up the ranks of the Shi'ite Islamist Dawa party, he has proved adept at playing Iraq's political factions against one another, and maintaining a tricky balance in regional diplomacy.
After Hashemi fled the country earlier this year, Maliki survived a short-lived boycott of parliament and the cabinet by the Sunni-backed Iraqiya party, which ended up more fractured and eventually strengthened the Shi'ite leader's hand.
Iraq authorities quickly blamed Sunni insurgents seeking "sectarian pursuits and sedition" for Sunday's attacks that hit security forces and cafes and mosques in Shi'ite districts.
No group claimed responsibility, but though violence is far from the peak seen in 2006-07, Iraqi security forces are still battling a lethal mix of Sunni Islamist fighters, including a local al Qaeda wing and former members of Saddam's Baath party, all determined to undermine the Shi'ite-led government.
While weakened by years of fighting the U.S. forces, security analysts say al Qaeda's local wing, the Islamic State of Iraq, has begun to benefit from funds and morale as Sunni Islamists have been crossing into neighboring Syria to fight.
"The terrorists may be trying to exacerbate any inter-communal tensions," said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group consultancy. "It doesn't show that the terrorists are in league with Hashemi, but it is very likely that they are trying to capitalize on the sectarian sensitivity of his case."
The insurgents aim to capitalize on broader disaffection among Iraqis impatient with government failures to restore basic services, more than nine years after the U.S. invasion.
But a larger question mark over the country's longer-term stability may lie next door in Syria, where Islamists from its Sunni majority form a significant part of the forces trying to oust Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam and whose family has long been a key Arab ally of Iran.
Maliki is also close to Iran, which like Syria gave him refuge after he fled persecution under Saddam, and he has resisted calls from Sunni Arab leaders to take a harder line against Assad. But he rejects U.S. charges that he is allowing Iranian flights to ferry arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace.
Prime minister since 2006, Maliki has relied on Tehran's help to shore up domestic Shi'ite support behind him and Tehran and Damascus both backed his fragile new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in 2010.
The emergence of Sunni Islamist power in Syria if Assad were to fall is a prospect that alarms both Iran and Iraq's Shi'ite leaders. But even if Assad's holds on in a stalemate, violence is already washing back from Syria into Iraq.
Baghdad officials say Sunni Islamist fighters are crossing into Syria from Iraqi territory. And Syrian rockets hit the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim this week, killing a young girl.
Along the border, in Iraqi provinces that are a stronghold for the Sunnis, many tribes share common ties and sympathies with their Syrian Sunni brethren over the frontier:
"It's a war between a government and the people," said one Iraqi in Qaim, Emad Hammoud. "We are with the people."
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Raheem Salman; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)