BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday called on Kurdish authorities to hand Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi over to face charges his office had run death squads, a demand likely to further heighten sectarian tensions.
The latest dispute between Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government and Sunni rivals erupted in the hours that the last U.S. troops were withdrawing from Iraq. Maliki sought Hashemi’s arrest, prompting the Sunni leader to travel to semi-autonomous Kurdistan.
“We ask our brothers in the Kurdistan region to take responsibility and hand the wanted person over to the judiciary. His running to another state would create problems,” Maliki told a press conference.
“We will be sure to provide a fair trial for Tareq al-Hashemi,” he said.
Hashemi has denied the charges he says were fabricated by Maliki’s government, and said he is willing to face judges in the northern Kurdish enclave, which has its own regional government and armed forces.
The crisis risks unravelling a fragile year-old power-sharing deal among Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs that have struggled to overcome tensions since sectarian slaughter in the years after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.
Shi’ite leaders say the case involves law enforcement against individuals and does not target a community, but the Sunni minority fears that Maliki is increasing his hold on the government and marginalising Sunnis.
In a system devised under U.S. occupation to divide power, Iraq has a Shi’ite prime minister with Sunni and Kurd deputies, a Kurdish president with Shi’ite and Sunni vice presidents, and a Sunni parliament speaker with Shi’ite and Kurd deputies.
Maliki has also asked parliament to fire the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Hashemi and Mutlaq are the country’s most senior Sunni politicians.
The White House on Tuesday said it was “obviously concerned” about the arrest warrant issued for Hashemi and urged the probe be conducted according to rule of law.
The last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq on Sunday nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam.