Crisis deepens in Iraq
Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president said he stood ready to defend himself against terror charges in a defiant news conference yesterday as rival leaders called for urgent talks to resolve a worsening crisis.
Just days after US forces left the country and on the eve of the national unity government's first anniversary, Iraq's fragile political truce already looked to be unravelling.
Authorities issued a warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi's arrest on Monday, spurring his Iraqiya bloc to say it would boycott cabinet meetings.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for the sacking of one of his deputies, a Sunni who branded the Shia-led government a "dictatorship".
The White House voiced concern over the developments as US ambassador James Jeffrey met Iraqi leaders, although Maliki's office ruled out any mediation over the charges against Hashemi.
He called for representatives of the Arab League to take part in the investigation and any questioning, and said apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were fabricated.
Hashemi also questioned upbeat statements about the state of Iraq from US President Barack Obama, telling reporters: "I am surprised by the statements of the US president, when he said that Iraq had become democratic and had an independent judicial system."
Officials issued the warrant for Hashemi's arrest on Monday, after earlier banning him from travelling overseas.
At least 13 of the vice president's bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks, although it was unclear how many remain in custody.
State television has shown footage of what the interior ministry said were confessions by Hashemi's bodyguards to planning and carrying out terror attacks, and receiving funding and support from the vice president.
Maliki and other leaders have called for talks to resolve the political crisis, but the premier's spokesman told AFP he would not accept any mediation over the charges against Hashemi.
Maliki has also called for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, like Hashemi a Sunni Arab and a member of the Iraqiya bloc, to be sacked after Mutlak said the premier was "worse than Saddam Hussein".
Lawmakers are due to consider Maliki's request to fire Mutlak on January 3.
The premier's call for urgent talks was echoed by parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani.
Iraqiya said it would boycott cabinet to protest Maliki's "dictatorship" although it has not pulled out of the government.
The bloc, which holds 82 of the 325 seats in parliament and controls nine ministerial posts, had earlier said it was suspending its participation in the legislature.
Iraqiya, which garnered most of its support from the Sunni Arab minority and emerged with the largest number of seats in March 2010 elections, was out-manoeuvred for the premiership by Maliki who finished second in the polls but subsequently broadened his power base by striking a deal with another faction.