- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2011

Iraq’s vice president says that Iran is “definitely” behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s move to jail him on terror charges, saying it is “not a coincidence” that his arrest warrant was announced the day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq.

“Definitely Iran was involved,” Tariq al-Hashemi told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview, speaking by phone late Wednesday from a Kurdish town in northern Iraq. “My dear friend, they have … staff now in the government and in the parliament. They are representing Iran.”

Mr. al-Hashemi said he has been a consistent critic of the “intervention of Iran in every respect of my country.”

“They are interfering in politics, in the economy, in social life, in education, in everything,” he said of Iran’s Shiite leadership. “They are becoming a major player in political decision-making. They are threatening our country’s sovereignty, so I was one of the major protesters against this policy.”

Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for Mr. al-Hashemi, a Sunni, on Monday, accusing the vice president of running “death squads” that assassinated Shiiite government officials during sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.

Mr. al-Hashemi, who is staying in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, has vehemently denied the charges, but he told The Times that he believes he could never receive a fair trial from the Iraqi judiciary.

“All Iraqis are very much aware about the nature of our judicial system,” he said. “It is not transparent, it is not neutral, it is not independent. It’s become a puppet of the government and certainly al-Maliki.”

Mr. al-Hashemi said he is willing to face trial before “a neutral and more transparent and more professional, independent court, which I think is available here” in the Kurdish region.

The charges against him have threatened the fragile unity government that Mr. al-Maliki formed after the 2009 elections, which gave his State of Law bloc two fewer seats than the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc to which Mr. al-Hashemi belongs.

Iraqiya, which has long complained of being sidelined in the government, has boycotted government sessions since the announcement of the arrest warrant.

The political crisis began the day after the last U.S. soldiers departed Iraq, bringing the eight-year operation to an end.

Mr. al-Hashemi said the timing is not accidental and said that it vindicated his repeated warnings to U.S. officials about leaving the country prematurely.

“We warned them that we are very much concerned about the future and you are going to leave the country with unbelievable interference from our neighbor Iran,” he said. “So what happened is not a coincidence. I’m not caught by surprise. I was expecting this.”

Officials in Iran’s Interests Section in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In Washington, Republicans have seized on the political crisis to claim that the Obama administration acted recklessly in pulling out troops.

“This crisis has been precipitated in large measure by the failure and unwillingness of the Obama administration to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government for a residual presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, thereby depriving Iraq of the stabilizing influence of the U.S. military and diminishing the ability of the United States to support Iraq,” Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement Monday evening.

The U.S. had been engaged in negotiations with the Iraqi government on revising the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement to allow a few thousand troops to remain, but the talks collapsed on the U.S. demand for immunity.

President Obama welcomed Mr. al-Maliki to the White House earlier this month and hailed the “impressive progress” Iraq had made on the road to democracy.

Mr. al-Hashemi said the speech was misguided.

“Unfortunately, we are building an autocratic regime, the government is consolidating power, and our judicial system is not neutral, it’s not independent. It’s become a puppet of the government,” the Iraqi vice president said.

“Either there was an unreliable report coming from Baghdad to the White House, or Mr. Obama just overlooked all these facts on the ground in Iraq. The facts on the ground contradict his speech, so I’m really disappointed about that.”

• Ben Birnbaum can be reached at 138247@example.com.

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