BAGHDAD — A political crisis unfolding in Iraq intensified Wednesday when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded that Kurdish officials hand over the country’s Sunni vice president to face criminal charges and threatened to purge the fragile coalition government of lawmakers who refuse to work with him.
Maliki, a Shiite, also said that he would release what he described as incriminating information about government officials unless they work to stop killings and to rebuild the country, adding that the constitution gives him broad authority and latitude to run Iraq as he sees fit.
Speaking at a news conference broadcast on national television, Maliki said that if leaders in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region do not hand over Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi — who is accused of enlisting personal bodyguards to run a hit squad — “it will stir up problems.”
In a sign of hardening differences, Maliki struck a defiant tone against political opponents who have boycotted parliament and are accusing him of rushing to consolidate power in the wake of the U.S. troop departure last weekend.
Maliki said he does not want to be weighed down by the opinions of various political factions and insisted that the government has the right to replace ministers who boycott their jobs because of differences with him.
At the same time, Maliki said he would like to make power-sharing work and would seek replacement appointees from rival parties, so long as they share his commitment to rebuild the country.
It is not suitable, Maliki said, to keep talking about “your share and my share” and “my harmonization here and your harmonization there.”
The Obama administration, though concerned about the turn of events in Baghdad just days after the U.S. withdrawal, focused Wednesday on what it saw as the positive elements of Maliki’s statements, describing the upheaval as part of the usual rough and tumble of Iraqi politics.
“This kind of political turmoil has been occurring in Iraq periodically, as they have taken steps forward and, occasionally, steps backwards,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Maliki “actually said many of the right things in terms of respect for the constitution, a desire for an inclusive political process, a desire to move past sectarian and ethnic issues,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fluid situation candidly.
But the official acknowledged that “anytime you have something that spirals up politically, there is always a danger that it spirals beyond the control of the political actors, and people throw up their hands and walk away.”
In calls Tuesday evening to Maliki and Osama al-Nujaifi, the parliament speaker from the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc, Vice President Biden told them that “whatever the facts actually were, the Iraqis were creating a perception problem that would not advance their interests,” said Antony J. Blinken, Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser. Biden, Blinken said, warned that it was important to show “that they were working through their differences in the political process together, not just throwing accusations at each other.”
Asked about the responses to Biden, the official said Maliki and Nujaifi “were certainly responsive in the moment. The issue is really what actions follow from that.”
Maliki also threatened Wednesday to release files containing allegedly damning evidence about other government officials. “The others, they should at least stop their destruction and killing,” he said. “Otherwise, all the files will go out and be put before the judiciary.”
With regard to the vice president, Maliki insisted that the charges against him were legitimate and that his government “will provide a fair trial.”
“It is a criminal case,” he said. “It is a matter of blood and souls. I will not allow — the families of the martyrs will not allow — compromise on this case.”
Hashimi has called the charges against him baseless, saying they were trumped up by Maliki. He fled to Kurdistan several days ago and has said that he is willing to stand trial there, but not in Shiite-majority Baghdad.
“The judiciary today in Baghdad is not fair,” he said in an interview Wednesday on al-Hurra TV. “It is politicized. There is no transparency. It has been put in the pocket of the government.”
Hashimi told the network that the prime minister has become impossible for other politicians to work with.
“Al-Maliki pushed things in the direction of no return,” he said. “I don’t think, today, there is enough space for a dialogue.”
Hashimi said he is seeking to have a lawsuit filed against Maliki over the files that the prime minister has said he may turn over to investigators.
“He’s waiting for the right moment to blackmail the politicians,” Hashimi said. “Why is he covering up those crimes? Why does he not present them? Why do these cases remain up to his personal choice?”
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 left Iraq. Maliki said at the news conference that Hashimi was operating outside the law and appeared to think that his position allowed him to do so.
“There is a mechanism all over the world for people who are wanted by the judiciary,” Maliki said. “That’s why we are demanding the brothers in the regional government of Kurdistan bear their responsibility.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.