Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region will not hand over fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi to stand trial in Baghdad because Kurdish ethics forbid it, the region's leader said on Thursday.
Hashemi, one of Iraq's leading Sunni Muslim politicians, fled Baghdad for the Kurdish zone in December to avoid prosecution at the hands of the Shi'ite-led central government on charges of running death squads.
His presence in Kurdistan has further strained relations between Baghdad and the Kurds, who also have long-running disputes over territory and oil.
Kurdistan will not hand over Hashemi because Kurdish ethics do not allow us to do that, Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani said in a speech to his KDP political party.
It has reached the extent that some were suggesting we facilitate his escape outside Iraq. Our response was that we do not work as smugglers and we won't accept that, he said.
If Hashemi wishes to leave the country it must be open ... If Hashemi has been accused to the degree the government says, why would they want Kurdistan to help him escape abroad?
Washington withdrew its forces from Iraq last year hoping political stability would be guaranteed by a deal including Kurdish and Sunni Arab groups in a government led by Maliki's Shi'ite majority.
Maliki's government issued charges against Hashemi on the eve of the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in December, causing a political crisis in the fragile national unity government. Hashemi's Iraqiya bloc, the main alliance supported by Sunnis, announced a boycott of the cabinet and parliament.
However, most of Iraqiya's lawmakers returned last month, easing the crisis, and many of Iraq's political commentators say the affair ended up strengthening Maliki's grip on power.
The Interior Ministry in Baghdad has said it has formally requested the Kurdish authorities hand over Hashemi to stand trial in Baghdad. Kurdish Deputy Interior Minister Jalal Kareem told Reuters on Thursday the regional government had yet to receive any such request.
Hashemi says the charges against him are political, and he will not return to Baghdad to face them because the courts are biased. He has offered to stand trial in Kirkuk, a part of Iraq where Kurds and his fellow Sunni Arabs hold sway.
Farhad Atrishi, a Kurdish lawmaker in the national parliament in Baghdad, said the Kurds were protecting Hashemi as a way of safeguarding the power-sharing arrangement.
Hashemi is an individual, but behind him is the Iraqiya bloc, which is one of the biggest blocs and represents a component of society, the Sunnis. When they say that there is a marginalisation and exclusion, we defend that.
Iraqi officials say the case against Hashemi is purely criminal and not motivated by sectarian politics.
They say he used his political power to provide cover for Sunni insurgents responsible for killings. A judicial panel has rejected moving the case from Baghdad.
Hashemi has created a big embarrassment for Kurdistan, said Ali Shlah, a lawmaker from Maliki's State of Law coalition.
Barzani wants to keep good relations with all sides because he wants to remain a good mediator between all sides, he said. Hashemi should lift the embarrassment from the Kurds and turn himself over to justice.
(Additional reporting by Raheem Salman in Baghdad; Writing by Peter Graff in Baghdad; Edited by Richard Meares)