BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite prime minister told Kurdish authorities Wednesday to hand over the Sunni vice president, who fled to the semiautonomous region to escape an arrest warrant on charges he ran hit squads targeting government officials.
The charges, leveled a day after the last American troops left Iraq, have opened up a new round of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions that pushed the country to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
Tariq Al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni political figure, said Monday the allegations by his longtime rival Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are fabricated and politically motivated. He accused al-Maliki of concentrating power in his hands and torpedoing national reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
"I do not allow myself and others to bargain over Iraqi blood," al-Maliki said in his first public comments on the warrant.
He said Iraq is a unified county and the Kurdish authorities should hand over al-Hashemi to the Iraqi justice system.
"We ask our brothers in the Kurdistan region to take responsibility and hand the wanted person over to the judiciary," Maliki told a press conference.
"If they will not hand him over or let him flee or escape, this will lead to problems," the premier added.
Flee to Turkey?
There has been speculation that al-Hashemi may try to flee the country to Turkey, which shares a border with the northern Kurdish region.
The Sunni minority dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein until he was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The Shiites have held power ever since, and many Sunnis feel the Shiite-led government is determined to keep the them from ever regaining positions of power.Ex-Iraq leader says US left job undone
The charges raised suspicions that al-Maliki ordered the arrest of al-Hashemi as part of a campaign to consolidate his hold on power out of fear that Sunnis inside and outside of Iraq are plotting against him.
Al-Hashemi denied charges he paid his bodyguards to kill government officials during the heyday of Iraq's Sunni insurgency.
Most of the accusations date back to the height of the war in 2006 and 2007, when neighbors turned on neighbors and whole sections of Baghdad were expunged of one Muslim sect or the other.
Al-Hashemi fled to the Kurdish region on Sunday, before the arrest warrant was announced and before purported confessions from his bodyguards aired on Iraqi television Monday evening. He was barred from leaving the country on Sunday.
Al-Maliki effectively runs the Interior Ministry, where the charges originated.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.