QALACHWALAN, Iraq — The Sunni vice president wanted for allegedly running a hit squad in Iraq on Friday accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of waging a campaign against Sunnis and pushing the country toward sectarian war.
In an interview with The Associated Press Tariq al-Hashemi said al-Maliki wants to get rid of all political rivals and run Iraq like a "one-man-show."
The comments by Iraq's highest level Sunni political figure reflect the mounting sectarian tensions surrounding the confrontation between him and the prime minister that have hiked fears Iraq could be thrown into new violence following the exit of American troops.
The political crisis taps into the resentments that have remained raw in the country despite years of effort to overcome them, with minority Sunnis fearing the Shiite majority is squeezing them out of any political say, and Shiites suspecting Sunnis of links to insurgency and terrorism.
"He's pushing the things to a catastrophe. And I'm not sure what's going to happen after that," al-Hashemi said of the prime minister.
He spoke to the AP at a guesthouse of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the mountains overlooking the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
Al-Hashemi has been a guest of Talabani since Sunday when he traveled to the Kurdish region to discuss the growing conflict between himself and al-Maliki's government. A day later, the government in Baghdad issued an arrest against him on what he says are trumped-up charges. He has refused to go back to Baghdad where he says he cannot get a fair trial.
The Iraqi government maintains al-Hashemi orchestrated a campaign of assassinations carried out by his bodyguards. Earlier this week they aired televised confessions of the bodyguards detailing how al-Hashemi gave them money for the hits.
The confessions have aired repeatedly since then, including on state television when al-Hashemi earlier this week held a press conference defending himself.
Fears that the situation could spiral out of control were heightened by devastating bombings that tore through mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad on Thursday and killed at least 69 people.
Al-Hashemi is one of the leaders of the Iraqiya party, a Sunni-backed political bloc that has constantly clashed with al-Maliki's Shiite coalition and accused him of hoarding power. Al-Maliki is also seeking a vote of no-confidence against the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Security forces have also launched a wave of arrests against former members of the Sunni-dominate Baath Party, which ruled Iraq under Saddam,
In Sunnis' eyes, the moves are a sign that al-Maliki is out to get them.
"Definitely, he is going to concentrate on the Sunni community because they are the society, the community of Tariq al-Hashemi so they are going to suffer," the vice president said. He said other sectors of Iraqi society could also be targeted in the future, but for now, it's the Sunnis.
"He is trying to escalate the tension, making life very, very difficult for our provinces, to our people," he said.
Hundreds of Sunnis marched Friday after weekly Muslim prayers in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, demanding the charges against al-Hashemi be dropped. A smaller crowd also marched in the city of Beiji.
The preacher of Abu Hanifa, the main Sunni mosque in Baghdad, also criticized the Iraqi leaders who "preoccupy themselves with side issues and conflicts and ignore essential issues. You (politicians) have to pay heed to reunite Iraqis. You have to give up hatred, killing and intimidation," Sheik Ahmed al-Taha told worshippers in his sermon.
"Do not let our defeated enemy (the Americans) say that we are unable to continue with them," he added.
But Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric implicitly urged Sunnis to not raise an uproar over the warrant.
In a sermon in the Shiite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said, if someone is "dealing with terrorism, what should we do?"
The aide, Ahmed al-Safi, did not specifically mention the conflict or any of the players in it. But he said, "The prestige of the government must be preserved ... part of its prestige is punishing abusers."