Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, at the centre of a political row that has jeopardised Iraq's sectarian balance, left the autonomous northern Kurdish region for Qatar on Sunday, a statement from his office said.
Hashemi, one of the top politicians from the Sunni minority, is accused by Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government of running death squads, a charge he denies. He has been holed up in the Kurdish zone since Baghdad issued an arrest warrant for him in December.
The government includes Kurds and Sunnis under a power sharing deal designed to calm tensions that led to extreme sectarian violence in 2006-07 when thousands of Iraqis were killed.
Hashemi's office said he had left the country to visit predominantly Sunni Qatar, which Iraq said was a clear defiance of his arrest warrant.
Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi left on Sunday morning... heading to Doha in the brotherly state of Qatar in accordance with an invitation he received previously, the statement said.
It (the visit) is expected to last for a few days, then the vice president will visit other countries, which will be announced later, then he will come back... to his residency in Iraq's Kurdistan.
Qatar's state news agency said Hashemi had arrived in the country for an official visit due to last a few days.
While Iraq's political crisis has abated somewhat in recent weeks, Hashemi has remained in the Kurdish region, saying he cannot receive a fair trial in Baghdad.
The Kurds, who have their own courts and security forces, have been drawn into Hashemi's dispute with the central government by sheltering him.
They have said they will not turn Hashemi over to Baghdad for trial because the case has political implications that need to be resolved first.
This is a legal violation, the airport authority in Arbil should face legal consequences since he (Hashemi) is forbidden from travelling, Ali al-Moussawi, a media advisor to Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told Reuters.
The Iraqi law is one and it applies to all, including Kurdistan.
Earlier on Sunday, Maliki told a press conference that any country who is a member of the Arab League should not receive Hashemi but said it was up to international authorities to ask a state hosting the vice president to hand him over.
The Arab League summit was held in Iraq for the first time in 20 years last week.
The meeting, which focused on Syria where rebels are fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, also drew attention to frosty ties between Iraq, a Shi'ite Muslim majority country, and Gulf Arab states, which are all ruled by Sunni Muslim royal families.
The Sunni Gulf Arab states are weary of Iraq's ties to Shi'ite neighbour Iran, which is jostling for more influence in the region. Iraq has also taken a more moderate stance on the crisis in Syria, while neighbours Qatar and Saudi Arabia have advocated sending arms to the rebels.
At last week's summit in Baghdad, Kuwait's emir was the only Gulf leader to attend while Qatar sent a message through a low-level delegation.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told state TV Iraqiya on Saturday that the message had a hard tone.
The message was not a love message, but it was more aggressive, Dabbagh said. We do not accept any Arabic or international country to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.
(Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)