Iraq vice president denies he directed hit squad

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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.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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