Government accuses Tareq al-Hashimi, Iraq’s most senior Sunni official, of “terror” links, stoking sectarian tensions.
The Iraqi vice-president has called an arrest warrant issued against him a “political attack”, categorically denying allegations that he was plotting against other politicians.
Tariq al-Hashemi made the comments in the city of Salah al-Din on Tuesday, after holding talks with the president of the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan.
“I know the aim, I know the objective – it’s a political attack. This is the main reason behind the accusations,” he told a news conference.
Iraq’s Shia-led government issued the arrest warrant on Monday on “terrorism” charges relating to alleged links to assassinations of government officials.
Hashemi is the country’s most senior Sunni official, and the move has raised concerns about rising sectarian tensions, days after the last US troops pulled out of Iraq, ending more than eight years of operations.
Iraqi politicians, including Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister who is a Shia, have called for urgent talks to head off a political crisis.
“Maliki is calling for a conference of heads of political blocs and political leaders to discuss their differences, and to sort out the current security and political crisis,” Ali Mussawi, his media adviser, told the AFP news agency.
Meanwhile, Osama al-Nujaifi, the parliament speaker, called for “a national conference, at a time when the political process is subject to strong and dangerous shocks with undesired consequences”.
Nujaifi, who like Hashemi is a Sunni and a member of the Iraqiya bloc, warned that Iraq faced “crucial days”.
His call for talks echoed that of Massud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, who cautioned on Monday that the situation was headed towards “deep crisis”.
“The ruling partnership has become threatened,” Barzani said, referring to the power-sharing deal which was hammered out during nine months of negotiations after elections in March last year.
“We should all work together to provide security and stability and avoid any security vacuum after the withdrawal of American forces. We must also not underestimate or tolerate terrorism. At the same time, however, security forces should not be used for political objectives,” Barzani said in a statement.
The US has expressed “concern regarding these developments”, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“We’re urging all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue, in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process,” he said.
State television aired what it characterised as confessions by alleged “terrorists” linked to Hashemi on Monday.
The men, who were said to have worked as bodyguards for Hashemi, said he had paid them to kill officials at several government ministries as well as Baghdad police officers.
Investigative judges have banned Hashemi from travelling outside of Iraq, but he travelled from Baghdad to Kurdistan on Sunday.
Hiwa Osman, a freelance journalist who was on Hashemi’s flight, said the takeoff of the plane was disrupted as army officers ordered everyone to leave the plane, with “very senior brigadiers and generals around the airport”.
“The atmosphere felt like a coup,” Osman said.
Eventually, Hashemi and the other passengers were allowed onboard again and the plane took off.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath party, the Sunni minority has constantly complained of attempts by the Shia majority to sideline them.
Hashemi is one of the leaders of the Sunni-backed political bloc Iraqiya, which has just suspended its participation in parliament in protest over the control of key posts by al-Maliki.
PJ Crowley, former US state department spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “The optics and timing [of the arrest warrant] are highly suspect and are likely to make a challenging political environment very poisonous”.
“Politicians need to lead the country together,” he said. “Ultimately the Sunni, Shia and Kurds will have to be represented and function within the government.”
Iraqiya narrowly won the most seats in last year’s parliamentary election, but Ayad Allawi, the bloc’s leader, was outmanoeuvred by Maliki, who kept the prime ministerial post after winning key support from Shia parties.
For more than a year now, Maliki has effectively controlled the interior and defence ministries, which oversee the police and military, while conflicts between Sunni and Shia politicians have delayed the appointment of permanent ministers.
Iraq’s power-sharing government splits the presidency, the prime minister’s post, two vice-presidencies and two deputy premierships among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish blocs. But Sunni politicians complain they are kept out of decision-making.