Iraq's Sunni vice president denied Shiite accusations that he organized death squads, describing the charges Tuesday as a trumped-up case brought only after the departure of U.S. troops about assassinations allegedly committed five years ago.
The arrest warrant issued against the highest-ranking Sunni politician threatens to tear apart Iraq's coalition government and perhaps kick-start another Sunni insurgency. It raised suspicions that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi as part of a campaign to consolidate his hold on power out of a fear that Sunnis in and out of Iraq are plotting against him.
Sunnis, the minority Muslim sect in Iraq, feared a new round of sectarian warfare could result from the charges, announced the day after the last American soldiers left the country. 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.
Kurdish leaders were trying to work out a solution, sheltering al-Hashemi from arrest in their semiautonomous region in northern Iraq.
"I swear to God that al-Hashemi didn't commit any sin or do anything wrong against any Iraqi either now or in the future and this is my pledge to God," al-Hashemi said at a press conference in which he accused al-Maliki of ordering the warrant.
He described the confessions of his bodyguards that aired on Iraqi state TV as "fabricated" and the charges as a campaign to "embarrass" him.
"Al-Maliki is behind the whole issue. The country is in the hands of al-Maliki. All the efforts that have been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone. So yes, I blame al-Maliki," he said.
Al-Hashemi spoke from the Kurdish city of Irbil, where he traveled on Sunday after learning that authorities were preparing to arrest him.
Although the Kurdish region is part of Iraq, al-Hashemi is probably safe from Baghdad's reach. Kurdish leaders run their own security affairs. The Iraqi Army or national police do not travel there, and al-Maliki would be reluctant to ask the Kurds, a powerful political bloc that he needs, to return al-Hashemi for prosecution.
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but they are a different ethnic group from the Arabs that make up the vast majority of Iraq's population.
Al-Hashemi said he might leave Iraq temporarily. He has often traveled to neighboring Turkey, and many lawmakers in his Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc have essentially made Jordan their second home.
On Monday, state-run television aired what it characterized as confessions by men said to be bodyguards for al-Hashemi. The men said they killed officials working in Health and Foreign Ministries as well as Baghdad police officers, and that they received $3,000 from al-Hashemi for each attack.
Al-Maliki effectively runs the Interior Ministry, where the charges originated. Iraqiya has repeatedly accused the Shiite prime minister of hoarding power and last weekend boycotted parliament because al-Maliki refused to give up control over key posts.
"The political process is on the brink of disaster because of the decisions made by the government in the past two days," said Jasim al-Halbusi, member of the Anbar Provincial Council. Anbar is dominated by Sunnis.
"There are some people who have to understand that Iraq cannot be ruled by one sect," he said, alluding to al-Maliki's Shiite allies.
Sunni politicians worried they could be next on the arrest list, and Sunni neighborhoods braced for the worst.
"The arrest warrant is a starting signal to get rid of any person who might pose a threat to al-Maliki's dictatorship," said Ibrahim al-Obeidi, a resident of the Sunni-dominated Azamiyah neighborhood of northern Baghdad. "The streets are almost empty. People fear the resumption of sectarian violence."
It was not immediately clear whether al-Hashemi's Iraqiya coalition would remain as part of the al-Maliki-led government. Iraqiya encompasses different factions with their own agendas.
Even if the bloc does pull out of the government, al-Maliki might keep enough support from other groups, especially the Kurds, to form a majority government. Or he could limp along with a minority government.