Iraq's Sunni VP denies charges he ran hit squad

December 20, 2011 - 8:02 AM
Mideast Iraq

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007, file photo, Iraq's vice President Tariq al-Hashemi speaks to reporters during a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq's Shiite-led government has issued an arrest warrant Monday Dec. 19, 2011, for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's highest ranking Sunni official, on alleged terrorism charges. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's Sunni vice president denied charges he ran a hit squad that killed government officials during the nation's wave of sectarian bloodletting, accusing the Shiite-led government Tuesday of waging a campaign of persecution.

Tariq al-Hashemi told a news conference that he has not committed any "sin" against Iraq. He described the charges against him as "fabricated" and said the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was behind a plot to embarrass him.

"I'm shocked with all these things," al-Hashemi told reporters in the televised news conference in the northern city of Irbil. "I swear by God that al-Hashemi didn't do any sin or anything wrong against any Iraqi whether today or tomorrow and this my pledge to God."

He said the arrest warrant was a campaign to "embarrass" him. He blamed al-Maliki, although he did not say specifically what he believed the Shiite premier had or had not done.

"Al-Maliki is behind the whole issue. The country is in the hands of al-Maliki. All the efforts that had been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone. So yes, I blame al-Maliki," he said.

The Iraqi prime minister effectively runs the Ministry of Interior, where the charges originated.

Iraqi officials on Monday accused al-Hashemi of running a hit squad that killed government officials, and state-run television aired what it characterized as confessions by men said to be working as bodyguards for al-Hashemi.

The news of the warrant against al-Hashemi has hiked tensions between Sunnis and Shiites just two days after the last U.S. soldiers withdrew from the country, leaving behind a country where sectarian tensions run deep.

Al-Hashemi is in Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region and is not in custody. He thanked Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, for his support and said that Talabani promised he would be responsible for his security.

The vice president said security officials had come to his office and house and taken computers and documents. He said the staff working in his office were asked to turn in their badges and told to go home.

Al-Hashemi also sought to play down speculation that he would flee the country. He said that while he might leave for a short period of time, he would always return to Iraq.

The arrest warrant against Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni political leader has thrown Iraq's still fragile political system into a tailspin.

While al-Hashemi himself did not want to describe the campaign against him or his political bloc, Iraqiya, as sectarian, the Sunni-Shiite overtones were hard to ignore.

Al-Hashemi is Sunni and Iraqiya is overwhelmingly Sunni, while al-Maliki and his government are dominated by Shiites. Iraqiya has increasingly complained about what they describe as al-Maliki's authoritarian tendencies and reluctance to share power.

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Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.