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 Crisis Looms in Iraq With Arrest Order of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi

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Crisis Looms in Iraq With Arrest Order of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi ‎ 20.12.2011 
By Sam Dagher - WSJ

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Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki (left) speaking with Vice President al-Hashimi on May 10, 2011. Photo: EPA
December 20, 2011

BAGHDAD, — Iraq's political crisis took an ominous turn Monday with the issue of an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading Sunni Arab figure, for his alleged role in ordering and funding the assassinations of rival Shiite bureaucrats.

A judicial panel, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rivals said was under his sway, ordered the arrest of Mr. Hashemi, a day after the last convoy of U.S. soldiers left Iraq.

The development boded the possible end to the unwieldy government coalition of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions that was assembled with U.S. help a year ago after a long and acrimonious process that followed the deadlocked March 2010 elections.

The arrest warrant puts Mr. Maliki on a possible collision course with the Kurds, who run their own semiautonomous region in the north and participate in the central government but have longstanding disputes with Baghdad over oil and land; and with Sunni Arabs in provinces like Anbar, Diyala, Nineveh and Salahuddin who have pressed in recent weeks for more autonomy from Baghdad with the backing of the Kurds.

"Unfortunately the situation is heading toward a deep crisis and the government partnership is under threat," said Masoud al-Barzani, president of the Kurdistan regional government and one of Washington's staunchest allies in Iraq. Mr. Barzani played a pivotal role in brokering last year's government coalition, with prodding from Vice President Joe Biden.

The deal came after he received written guarantees from Mr. Maliki that he would implement a government partnership and work toward resolving the issues including the disputed internal boundaries and oil-revenue sharing between the central and Kurdish regional governments.

"We call for an urgent national conference to prevent the collapse of the political process and the country's exposure to what could be worse," he said, criticizing the government for "politicizing security matters."

Mr. Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Mussawi, said Mr. Barzani's call for a conference was inappropriate and an insult to those who lost loved ones in acts ordered by Mr. Hashemi.

Maysoun al-Damalouji, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hashemi's Iraqiya political bloc, on TV said the bloc will prove Mr. Hashemi's innocence. She described Mr. Maliki's move as a "political game" aimed at taking over all reins of power in Iraq.

"Is everyone who opposes Maliki a terrorist?" asked Ms. Damalouji.

In a move bound to widen the split with Mr. Barzani, Mr. Maliki met on Monday with a delegation from Nineveh province's government, which complained about the recent award by the Kurdistan region of six oil exploration blocks including in disputed areas of Nineveh to Exxon Mobil Corp.

The head of the Nineveh provincial council, Dildar Zebari, who comes from a family with an old feud with Mr. Barzani's clan, said Mr. Maliki said he has warned Exxon that it could be "responsible for a war in the area."

The warrant against Mr. Hashemi, which was issued by a special five-member judicial panel, came one day after he flew to the Kurdistan region for meetings with President Jalal Talabani.

Mr. Maliki's spokesman said three of Mr. Hashemi's assistants were arrested on Sunday night in connection with the case while they were trying to board a flight to Kurdistan with Mr. Hashemi and other officials. Mr. Hashemi's whereabouts were unknown and repeated calls to his assistants were unanswered.

A further seven members of Mr. Hashemi's staff were arrested Monday and his office in Baghdad's Green Zone area, home to top government officials and the U.S. Embassy, has been cordoned off by troops and military vehicles, said Mr. Maliki's spokesman, Mr. Mussawi.

"The arrest warrant has been issued against the vice president of the republic Tariq al-Hashemi in accordance to Article Four Terror and this warrant is signed by five honorable judges," said Brig. Gen. Adel Daham, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, in a news conference in Baghdad on Monday night, referring to a controversial and loosely defined antiterrorism law from 2005. Officials played prerecorded confessions by the three members of Mr. Hashemi's personal security detail, who Mr. Maliki's opponents say were arrested by the government and forced to confess.

"I want to expose this criminal Tariq al-Hashemi in front of the whole nation and in front of all Iraqis who were fooled and misled by him and some who are still fooled by him," said Ahmed Shawqi, a major in the Iraqi army and member of Mr. Hashemi's security team, on a grainy video.

For about 30 minutes, Mr. Shawqi described how he received orders from Mr. Hashemi personally and through senior members of his office, including Ahmed Qahtan, the vice president's personal secretary and son-in-law, to carry out attacks against several public figures.

Mr. Shawqi said Mr. Hashemi's office supplied him and other members of his group with silencer-equipped pistols and improvised explosive devices that were kept in one of Mr. Hashemi's homes in the Yarmouk district on Baghdad's western side. Those attacks allegedly resulted in at least 10 deaths plus others injured.

Mr. Shawqi said he personally received an envelope stuffed with $3,000 in cash from Mr. Hashemi for the first hit that he allegedly carried out in 2009, which he said involved planting an improvised explosive device in the path of the head of the heath directorate of Baghdad's Rusafa district, who was killed.

The State Department in Washington said it was "closely monitoring these reports" and "urging all political sides in Iraq to work out their differences peaceably, politically, through dialogue."

Mr. Hashemi's political bloc Iraqiya, which is headed by Mr. Maliki's main rival Ayad Allawi, held an urgent meeting in Baghdad to consider its moves. Participants said Iraqiya was considering pulling out from Mr. Maliki's government coalition after suspending its participation in Parliament over the weekend.

On Sunday Mr. Maliki asked Parliament to take up a no-confidence motion against Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, another senior member of the bloc, for calling Mr. Maliki a "dictator" in an interview with CNN television network last week.

—Jabbar Yaseenand Ali Nabhan contributed to this article

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