The Iraqi vice president accused of running death squads hit back at the prime minister Tuesday in a sectarian feud that risks wrecking Iraq's fragile balance of power, just days after U.S. troops finally withdrew.
In dismissing the charges against him as fabricated and part of machinations by premier Nuri al-Maliki, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi evoked wider regional tensions by appealing to the Arab League, a body dominated by his fellow Sunni Muslims, and denouncing foreign agendas in Iraq - code for Shi'ite Iran.
As Hashemi declared his willingness to face judges in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region - where he travelled after an arrest warrant was issued for him in Baghdad - one of his allies was lambasting Maliki, leader of the majority Shi'ite bloc, for acting like Saddam Hussein and risking renewed sectarian strife.
Holding a news conference in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil a day after supposed bodyguards to Hashemi confessed on television to a campaign of shootings and bombings, the vice president said: I swear, Hashemi did not commit any sin against Iraqi blood and will not commit any, either today or tomorrow.
The whole issue is Maliki's fault, he added.
I am demanding the case be transferred to Kurdistan ... and that representatives of the Arab League or Arab Lawyers Union have access, to ensure the integrity of the investigation.
On that basis, I am ready to be judged.
Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister who leads Hashemi's largely Sunni-supported Iraqiya political bloc, said: This is terrifying, to bring fabricated confessions.
It reminds me personally of what Saddam Hussein used to do, where he would accuse his political opponents of being terrorists and conspirators, Allawi told Reuters.
Hashemi is one of two vice presidents, the other being from the Shi'ite majority, while the president is an ethnic Kurd - a system devised under U.S. occupation to divide up power.
Iraqiya, though avowedly non-sectarian, benefited largely from Sunni votes to secure first place in a parliamentary election last year. But it ended up joining an uneasy coalition under Maliki, a Shi'ite who has been prime minister since 2006.
Iraqiya recently began to boycott parliament, complaining that it had been marginalised in a country where the Shi'ites, mostly oppressed for decades under Saddam, were now dominant.
The White House Tuesday said it was obviously concerned about the arrest warrant issued for Hashemi and urged the probe be conducted according to rule of law.
We are talking to all parties to express out concern regarding these developments. We continue to urge all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
The crisis risks unravelling a fragile power-sharing deal among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs that have struggled to overcome tensions since sectarian slaughter drove Iraq to the edge of civil war in the years after Saddam fell in 2003.
Authorities said Monday they issued an arrest warrant for Hashemi on terrorism charges on the basis of alleged confessions of men claiming to be members of Hashemi's security detail. The men said they had been paid by his office to carry out killings.
Kurdistan has its own government and security forces, making Hashemi's immediate arrest there unlikely, according to Kurdish political sources. In Baghdad, officials have said political figures had also sought to prevent Hashemi being arrested.
Hashemi complained Tuesday that security forces raided his Baghdad office and house and seized computers and documents.
The political struggle between Maliki and his Sunni rivals has intensified during the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, completed Sunday, nearly nine years after the invasion.
Fearing a deepening crisis that could push Iraq back into sectarian turmoil, senior Iraqi politicians have been holding talks with Maliki and other leaders to contain the dispute.
Monday, both the President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, called for dialogue among the different parties.
We call for a national political conference urgently to prevent the political process from collapsing and exposing the country to uncalled consequences, Barzani said in a statement.
Maliki over the weekend also asked parliament for a vote of no-confidence against another leading Sunni politician, Iraqiya's Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is deputy prime minister, on the grounds that he lacked faith in the political process.
Many Sunnis who fared relatively well under Saddam feel shunted aside by the rise of Shi'ites after the invasion. Already some Sunni-dominated regions in Iraq are seeking more autonomy from the central government, chafing against what they see as an increasingly authoritarian tack taken by Maliki.
More broadly, Iraq sits on a Sunni-Shi'ite faultline that is generating conflict throughout the Middle East, notably between non-Arab Iran and Sunni-ruled Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
While the overthrow of Saddam in Iraq bolstered Shi'ites, the uprising against Iran's Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, could lead to power shifting toward Syria's Sunni majority.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)