- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Sunni vice president denied charges he ran a hit squad that killed government officials during the nation’s wave of sectarian bloodletting, accusing the Shiite-led government Tuesday of waging a campaign of persecution.

Acting just a day after U.S. forces completed their withdrawal, the government issued an arrest warrant Monday for Tariq al-Hashemi, the country’s highest-ranking Sunni official.

The step risks tearing at the same sectarian fault lines that pushed Iraq to the edge of civil war just a few years ago - a prospect that is all the more dire with no U.S. forces on the ground.

Responding to the accusations, Mr. al-Hashemi told a televised news conference Tuesday that he has not committed any “sin” against Iraq and described the charges as “fabricated.”

He accused the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, of being behind a plot to smear him and declared that efforts at national reconciliation had been blown apart.

“I’m shocked by all these things,” Mr. al-Hashemi told reporters in the northern city of Irbil. “I swear to God that al-Hashemi didn’t commit any sin or do anything wrong against any Iraqi either today or tomorrow and this is my pledge to God.”

He said the arrest warrant is a campaign to “embarrass” him. He blamed Mr. Maliki, although he did not say specifically what he believed the premier had done.

Al-Maliki is behind the whole issue. The country is in the hands of al-Maliki. All the efforts that have been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone. So yes, I blame al-Maliki,” he said.

The Iraqi prime minister effectively runs the Interior Ministry, where the charges originated.

Iraqi officials on Monday accused Mr. al-Hashemi of running a hit squad that assassinated government and security officials, and state-run television aired what it characterized as confessions by men said to be working as bodyguards for Mr. al-Hashemi.

The news of the warrant against Mr. al-Hashemi has increased tensions between Sunnis and Shiites at a particularly fragile time for the nation.

The last U.S. soldiers withdrew from the country on Sunday, leaving behind a country where sectarian tensions run deep.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath party regime, the Sunni minority has constantly complained of attempts by the Shiite majority to sideline them.

Mr. al-Hashemi left Baghdad on Sunday for northern Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, presumably hoping that Kurdish authorities would not turn him in.

On Tuesday, he thanked Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, for his support and said Mr. Talabani promised he would be responsible for his security.