Arrest Warrant Issue For Iraq's Vice President

Just days after the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iraq is in the midst of a growing political crisis. Aides to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki say one of his main rivals, ordered attacks on Shiite politicians.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NRP News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Even as many in Iraq are celebrating the departure of all American troops, some there are concerned, particularly minority Sunnis. And already a political crisis is unfolding over an arrest warrant issued for Iraq's top Sunni elected leader. He's a vice president charged under the country's terrorism laws with directing teams of assassins, something he denies. NPR's Sean Carberry has the story from Bagdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE TELEVISION BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: On Monday night, Iraqi State TV aired the videotaped confessions of three men alleged to be guards of Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. All three gave vivid accounts of being recruited by Hashemi and his senior staff over the last few years. They said they were paid to conduct missions, either bombings or shootings of Iraqi officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: After the confessions, Major General Adel Daham from the Ministry of Interior spoke and held up the warrant for the TV camera. He said it had been signed by a five-judge panel. At least seven of Hashemi's guards have been arrested in recent weeks, and Daham said they'll be airing more confessions soon. On one level it all looked like compelling evidence implicating Iraq's Sunni vice president.

JOOST HILTERMANN: I think it's a terrible idea to assign any credibility to confessions made on public television.

CARBERRY: Joost Hiltermann is the International Crisis Group's deputy program director for the Middle East. He characterized the move by the government of Nouri Al Maliki as a case of Saddam-era tactics. He says this approach is dangerously inflammatory. At the same time, he and other analysts and politicians are not entirely surprised that Maliki is taking dramatic, and some say panicked, action right now.

HILTERMANN: He fears that with the departure of the last American troops, there will be a vacuum.

CARBERRY: And so this is what Hiltermann characterizes as a rare opportunity for Maliki to reassert his authority and control over the political situation in Iraq.

HILTERMANN: He has long suspected Sunni leaders of harboring people who want to plot against him. This is a vindication of those suspicions, and he is going after them with a vengeance.

TARIQ AL HASHEMI: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: Tuesday afternoon, Hashami issued a firey rebuttal with a press conference that was not carried by state TV. Hashemi denied the accusations and called for a fair, independent judicial process. He questioned the timing of the charges and claimed to have evidence that foreign powers are trying to stoke sectarian tensions. Hiltermann says this is threatening an already fragile political situation. He doesn't believe Iraq is about to slip into another civil war, but...

HILTERMANN: The same sectarian tensions that we saw in the past are just bubbling near the surface. It's a very dangerous moment.

CARBERRY: The U.S. is urging all sides to work out their differences through a peaceful legal process. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Baghdad.

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