QALACHWALAN, Iraq (AP) - The Sunni vice president wanted for allegedly running a hit squad in Iraq on Friday accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of waging a campaign against Sunnis and pushing the country toward sectarian war.
In an interview with The Associated Press Tariq al-Hashemi said al-Maliki wants to get rid of all political rivals and run Iraq like a "one-man-show."
The comments by Iraq's highest level Sunni political figure reflect the mounting sectarian tensions surrounding the confrontation between him and the prime minister that have hiked fears Iraq could be thrown into new violence following the exit of American troops.
The political crisis taps into the resentments that have remained raw in the country despite years of effort to overcome them, with minority Sunnis fearing the Sunni majority is squeezing them out of any political say, and Shiites suspecting Sunnis of links to insurgency and terrorism.
"He's pushing the things to a catastrophe. And I'm not sure what's going to happen after that," al-Hashemi, who denies the accusations, said of the prime minister.
He spoke to the AP at a guesthouse of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the mountains overlooking the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
Al-Hashemi arrived here on Sunday with a small suitcase and two suits to discuss the growing conflict with al-Maliki's government.
But what was supposed to be a two-day trip has stretched nearly a week after the Iraqi government Monday issued an arrest against him on what he says are trumped-up charges. He has refused to go back to Baghdad where he says he cannot get a fair trial. The central government's security forces do no operate in the northern autonomous Kurdish zone, so he's safe from arrest here.
The Iraqi government maintains al-Hashemi orchestrated a campaign of assassinations carried out by his bodyguards. Earlier this week they aired televised confessions of the bodyguards detailing how al-Hashemi gave them money for the hits.
The confessions have aired repeatedly since then, including on state television when al-Hashemi earlier this week held a press conference defending himself.
Fears that the situation could spiral out of control were heightened by devastating bombings that tore through mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad on Thursday and killed at least 69 people. Many fear Iraq could eventually fall back into the vicious sectarian bloodshed that reached its height in 2006 and 2007 and nearly threw the country into civil war.
Al-Hashemi is one of the leaders of the Iraqiya party, a Sunni-backed political bloc that has constantly clashed with al-Maliki's Shiite coalition and accused him of hoarding power. Al-Maliki is also seeking a vote of no-confidence against the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Security forces have also launched a wave of arrests against former members of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, which ruled Iraq under Saddam.
In Sunnis' eyes, the moves are a sign that al-Maliki is out to get them.
"Definitely, he is going to concentrate on the Sunni community because they are the society, the community of Tariq al-Hashemi so they are going to suffer," the vice president said. He said other sectors of Iraqi society could also be targeted in the future, but for now, it's the Sunnis.
"He is trying to escalate the tension, making life very, very difficult for our provinces, to our people," he said.
Al-Hashemi warned that after Thursday's violence, the prime minister may crack down even more. He called on "sensible people" in al-Maliki's alliance of Shiite parties to stop his policies.
"He doesn't believe in compromises. He doesn't believe in peaceful solutions to the problems. He's going to use the Iraqi army and the security for more repression," he said.
Iraqiya has long warned that al-Maliki is trying to hoard power. For example, it's more than a year after the government was formed and al-Maliki has still not appointed permanent ministers of defense or interior.
The government is now made up of an unwieldy collection of all the Iraqi political factions, including Iraqiya. The power-sharing agreement created last year to give the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis various roles in the government is not the easiest mechanism for running a country but supporters say it's better than having one or more factions shut out completely and angry.
But al-Maliki is known to dislike the arrangement intensely. He said during a news conference Wednesday that he would consider creating a majority government, meaning shutting out Iraqiya. Iraqiya has boycotted parliament sessions, and at least some of its ministers have not been attending cabinet sessions.
Al-Hashemi said a power-sharing arrangement such as the one in place now is the only way to run Iraq at this time, and criticized al-Maliki for appearing to want to abandon it.
"This gentleman has no sympathy, no belief in democracy at all. He would like to run Iraq in the style of a one-man-show," he said. "Simple as that."
On the first Friday after the political crisis began, hundreds of Sunnis marched after weekly Muslim prayers in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, demanding the charges against al-Hashemi be dropped. A smaller crowd also marched in the city of Beiji.
The preacher of Abu Hanifa, the main Sunni mosque in Baghdad, also criticized the Iraqi leaders who "preoccupy themselves with side issues and conflicts and ignore essential issues. ... You (politicians) have to give up hatred, killing and intimidation," Sheik Ahmed al-Taha told worshippers in his sermon.
"Do not let our defeated enemy (the Americans) say that we are unable to continue without them," he added.
But Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric implicitly urged Sunnis to not raise an uproar over the warrant.
In a sermon in the Shiite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said, if someone is "dealing with terrorism, what should we do?"
The aide, Ahmed al-Safi, did not specifically mention the conflict or any of the players in it. But he said, "The prestige of the government must be preserved ... part of its prestige is punishing abusers."
Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji contributed to this report.