by Jane Arraf
Iraq’s long-running and lethal political drama spilled out beyond its borders Tuesday with an Interpol notice calling for the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.
The global organisation said it was acting on the request of the Iraqi government in issuing an alert for al-Hashemi “on suspicion of guiding and financing terrorist attacks” in Iraq.
“If you have any information please contact your local or national police,” reads the Interpol listing for him on its ‘wanted persons’ list.
But Hashemi is no ordinary wanted man.
He has become a symbol of Sunni dispossession, a window into Iraq’s violent political culture and lately, a useful pawn in regional politics.
In Istanbul, where Turkey announced in April he had arrived for medical treatment, he has been staying at a luxury apartment complex guarded by Turkish police.
Turkish officials say they are expecting him to return to Erbil, in the Kurdish region, where he had been staying in unhappy refuge before leaving earlier this year.
They say though they will continue to help with his legal battles.
The Sunni vice president’s previous stops included Saudi Arabia and Qatar – two of the most severe critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government and its treatment of the country’s Sunni minority.
“I am not on the run and I am encouraged by the wide scale moral support that I am enjoying on the international level,” al-Hashemi said Tuesday in a statement from his ‘temporary media office."
Al-Hashemi is a former army officer with an imposing presence who often refers to himself in the third person.
“Al-Hashemi is still vice-president,” he repeatedly told us in an interview in the Kurdish region in January.
Almost all of his staff had been arrested in Baghdad, his office raided and his files and computers confiscated. He felt abandoned, he said, except for his Kurdish hosts and Turkey.
In a small guest house of the Kurdish prime minister, he seemed to be waiting in lonely exile for a political settlement to what the Iraqi government insists is purely a criminal case.
The former head of the Iraqi Islamic Party is accused of running death squads – of planning and funding the killings of six judges and at least three government officials.
Those are among almost 150 charges leveled against him in a case buttressed by confessions of some of his bodyguards.
The vice president is convinced, and many others suspect, that the confessions – televised on state-run TV – were coerced and some of the guards tortured.
Hashemi during our interview denied all the charges. He left open the possibility though that some of his guards might be guilty but said it needed proper investigation.
“I am not saying at the end of the day I can give any kind of clear-cut clearance to [all of] my bodyguards,” he said. “They might be at the end of the day but they have to prove it.”
It’s the same message delivered by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who told us in a recent interview that while some of Hashemi's bodyguards might be implicated, his deputy remains vice president and is innocent until proven guilty.
Kurdish officials have said Hashemi is free to return to their protection in the Kurdish region. But privately, many seemed to hope that he would either voluntarily go to Baghdad to answer the charges or simply quietly leave the country.
Neither appears to be an option.
In his statement Tuesday, Hashemi said he is ready to defend himself against the charges ‘through fair trial at any place and time’.
He maintains though that a fair trial in Baghdad would be impossible and has asked for it to be transferred either to Erbil or to Kirkuk.
He also referred to Prime Minister Maliki’s willingness to release ‘highly corrupt and real killers and terrorists – a reference to the release of high-profile Shia prisoners.
Maliki has also recently reconciled with Asaib al-Haq – an Iranian-backed splinter group of Muqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army that has claimed responsibility for attacks on Iraqi security forces and the US military.
While now commonly referred to as Iraq’s ‘fugitive vice president’, some see Iraq’s justice system as being on trial.
Nine years after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraq’s human rights record remains worrying, with evidence of rampant corruption, political coercion of the judicial system, torture and detention without charge.
And amid the crisis over the charges, almost overlooked is that in this new Iraq, judges and government officials are being assassinated so routinely, it makes the news only when a vice-president is accused of doing it.
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