Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Photo: Reuters
IRAQ has been plunged into its deepest political crisis in years after the Shiite-dominated government ordered the arrest of the Sunni vice-president, accusing him of running a death squad that assassinated police officers and government officials.
The sensational charges just one day after the US withdrew its last combat troops drew a worried response from Washington and brought Iraq’s tenuous partnership government to the edge of collapse. A major Sunni-backed political coalition said its ministers would walk off their jobs, leaving adrift agencies that handle Iraq’s finances, schools and agriculture.
The accusations against Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi also underlined fears that Iraq’s leaders may now be using the very institutions America has spent millions of dollars trying to strengthen – the police, the courts, the media – as a cudgel to batter their political enemies and consolidate power.
In Washington, where officials have been quietly celebrating the end of the war, Obama administration officials sounded alarmed about the arrest order.
”We are talking to all of the parties and expressed our concern regarding these developments,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. ”We are urging all sides to work to resolve differences … in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process.”
The breakdown in relations between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Mr Hashimi and his Iraqiya Party arrived at an inopportune moment for the administration. US officials have spent years trying to urge Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to work with the country’s Sunni minority, and are wary of having things fall apart now.
President Barack Obama said last week, in remarks welcoming troops back to Fort Bragg, that Iraq’s future would now be ”in the hands of the Iraqi people”.
But having removed its combat troops, it was unclear whether the US retained enough influence to limit sectarian tensions that some analysts say could drag the country back into the chaos of past years and even split it along geographical lines.
The government made its case against Mr Hashimi in a half-hour television broadcast. In grainy video confessions, three men said they had committed murders on Mr Hashimi’s behalf. They said they had blown up cars, attacked convoys with silenced pistols and were rewarded with envelopes containing $3000 in US bills.
To government critics, the charges seemed to be part of a wide-reaching consolidation of power by Mr Maliki. Amid the anxiety stirred by the US departure and unrest in neighbouring Syria, Mr Maliki, a Shiite, has tightened his grip on this divided nation by marginalising, intimidating or arresting his political rivals, many of whom are part of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
An aide to Mr Hashimi denounced the charges. ”This is a coup over all partners, on political process, on the constitution … This is the new dictatorship.”
Jack Healy, Baghdad