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Associated Press
Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi says charges that he ran Sunni death squads are part of a political vendetta.

BAGHDAD — Iraq's first major trial dealing with the country's savage Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings is tainted by politics, critics say — an ominous sign for those hoping for justice for tens of thousands of victims of street executions, bombings and kidnappings.

The defendant, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, says charges that he ran Sunni death squads are part of a political vendetta by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite. Al-Hashemi's nine-member legal team walked out in protest in the second court session late last month, citing judicial bias. And the prosecution's case relies heavily on the testimony of co-defendants, that the defense claimed was coerced, pointing to one who died in custody.

More broadly, regardless of the merits of the case against al-Hashemi — the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's leadership — the Shiite-dominated government has shown no sign of trying to prosecute those behind Shiite militias behind slayings of Sunnis. Several of those militias were linked to Shiite political parties that are now crucial backers of al-Maliki's government.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied any bias in charging al-Hashemi or that he was singled out, saying the case was strictly a legal matter. "Courts look into the crime itself, not the sectarian background" of the suspect, he said.

However, al-Maliki himself has acknowledged that politics played a role in the timing of the charges against al-Hashemi.