Renewed threat of sectarian conflict as Iraq’s Sunni vice president faces arrest

As Al Jazeera reported yesterday and the New York Times reports today, Iraqis have given scant attention to the departure of the last American troops as the country heads into a deepening political crisis.

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government was thrown into crisis on Monday night as authorities issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice president, accusing him of running a personal death squad that assassinated security officials and government bureaucrats.

The sensational charges against Tariq al-Hashimi, one of the country’s most prominent Sunni leaders, threatened to inflame widening sectarian and political conflicts in Iraq just one day after the last American convoy of American troops rolled out of the country into Kuwait.

The accusations were broadcast over Iraqi television, in a half-hour of grainy video confessions from three men identified as Mr. Hashimi’s bodyguards. They spoke of how they had planted bombs in public squares, driven up to convoys carrying Iraqi officials and opened fire.

Under the direction of Mr. Hashimi’s top aides, the men said, they gunned down convoys carrying Shiite officials and planted roadside bombs in traffic circles and wealthy neighborhoods of Baghdad, then detonated them as their targets drove by. One of the men said Mr. Hashimi had personally handed him an envelope with $3,000 after one of the attacks.

It was impossible to substantiate any of the accusations aired in the confessions.

An aide in Mr. Hashimi’s office said the three men had indeed worked for the vice president, but he denied all of the allegations. The aide said Mr. Hashimi was in the northern region of Kurdistan, meeting with Kurdish officials to defuse the worsening political standoff with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Reidar Visser, an analyst of Iraqi politics and editor of the blog, called the situation the worst crisis Iraq had faced in five years.

“Any leading Sunni politician seems now to be a target of this campaign by Maliki,” Mr. Visser said. “It seems that every Sunni Muslim or secularist is in danger of being labeled either a Baathist or a terrorist.”

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