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Evading arrest, Iraqi VP denies hit squad claim

BAGHDAD — 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.

Acting just a day after American forces completed their withdrawal, the government issued an arrest warrant Monday for Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni official. The step risks tearing at the same sectarian fault lines that pushed Iraq to the edge of civil war just a few years ago — a prospect that is all the more dire with no U.S. forces on the ground.

Responding to the accusations, al-Hashemi told a televised news conference Tuesday that he has not committed any "sin" against Iraq and described the charges as "fabricated." He accused the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, of being behind a plot to smear him and declared that efforts at national reconciliation had been blown apart.

"I'm shocked by all these things," al-Hashemi told reporters in the northern city of Irbil. "I swear to God that al-Hashemi didn't commit any sin or do anything wrong against any Iraqi either today or tomorrow and this is 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 done.

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

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

Iraqi officials on Monday accused al-Hashemi of running a hit squad that assassinated government and security 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 at a particularly fragile time for the nation. The last U.S. soldiers withdrew from the country on Sunday, leaving behind a country where sectarian tensions run deep.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath party regime, the Sunni minority has constantly complained of attempts by the Shiite majority to sideline them.

At first the Sunnis waged an insurgency against the Americans, then became U.S. allies against al Qaeda, but relations with the Shiite-led national government are still frosty.

Al-Hashemi left Baghdad on Sunday for northern Iraq's semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, presumably hoping that Kurdish authorities would not turn him in.

On Tuesday, 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 in Baghdad 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.

Sunnis suspected the charges against al-Hashemi were politically motivated. Al-Hashemi is an old rival of al-Maliki, and the arrest order came two days after Iraqiya suspended its participation in parliament because al-Maliki refused to give up control over key posts.

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