BAGHDAD — The political crisis that has erupted in Iraq widened Tuesday after the country’s Sunni vice president strongly denied terrorism charges leveled against him, alleging that three of his bodyguards gave false confessions after interrogations by Shiite-controlled security forces.
Tariq al-Hashimi said he was ready to stand trial, but only in the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, the area to which he has fled. His statement raised the possibility of the Kurds being dragged into the political battle that has broken out between Shiite and Sunni factions of the country’s central government.
“I suggest, guaranteeing justice, to transfer the case to the judicial authority of the Kurdistan region,” Hashimi said.
His remarks, carried nationwide on television, came the same day the Kurdistan region’s president, Massoud Barzani, released a statement calling for an urgent conference “to avoid a collapse of the political process.”
“We should all work together to provide security and stability and avoid any security vacuum after the withdrawal of American forces,” Barzani said. “We must also not underestimate or tolerate terrorism. At the same time, however, security forces should not be used for political objectives.”
In Washington, a White House statement said Vice President Biden called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and reiterated U.S. support for “an inclusive partnership government” and observance of the rule of law in Iraq. Biden stressed the need for Maliki and the leaders of the other major Iraqi blocs “to meet and work through their differences together,” the statement said.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Maliki, announced the arrest warrant for Hashimi on Monday, the day after the last U.S. troops departed Iraq.
“Without the pacifying effect of the U.S. military, uncertainty and fear appear to be shaping Iraqi politics, making scenarios where actions spiral towards armed conflict and fragmentation more likely,” analyst Ramzy Mardini of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote recently.
Three of Hashimi’s former bodyguards were shown on national television confessing to having participated in assassinations and bombings that targeted mid-level officials. One of the men said that at least six people were killed, and all three said Hashimi knew what they had been doing.
One of the men alleged that the vice president personally handed him white envelopes containing $3,000 after they completed their missions.
But by the time the warrant had been made public, Hashimi had made his way to Kurdistan, a relatively safe and prosperous northern region that aspires to independence. Hashimi provided his account of the charges Tuesday, saying they were trumped up and the work of Maliki.
“Everybody feels now they will be targeted sooner or later,” Hashimi said.
Hashimi also said that President Obama had recently painted too rosy of a picture of Iraq.
“Either the U.S. president was misled or he is jumping over the reality,” Hashimi said. “What democracy are you talking about, Mr. President, when my house is surrounded by tanks?”
Hashimi said there had been a rush to judgment against him.
“How could the investigation of complicated and old crimes be completed within 48 hours?” he asked. “The charges were ready even before the arrests of some of my guards.”
Saleh al-Mutlak, a deputy prime minister, called Maliki a “dictator” Tuesday, repeating a remark he made earlier to CNN.
In an interview, Mutlak said that Maliki is trying to weaken political opponents to the point that Iraq citizens will reelect him out of fear, deeming him the only Iraqi politician who can protect their country from foreign threats.
Mutlak said the prime minister has taken charge of the defense, security and intelligence agencies. “Everything is being controlled by Maliki,” he said.
Mutlak is a member of the al-Iraqiya parliamentary bloc, as is Hashimi.
Special correspondent Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.