Iraq Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi denies charge

Mr Hashemi said he was ready to defend himself against accusations of terrorism

Iraq's Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, has denied any wrongdoing, a day after a warrant was issued for his arrest on terrorism-related charges.

Mr Hashemi described as "fabricated" the accusation he was linked to attacks on government and security officials.

He also accused Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shia, of being behind a plot to embarrass him and blow apart recent attempts at national reconciliation.

The Sunni deputy prime minister has warned Iraq risks a new sectarian war.

The arrest warrant for Mr Hashemi was issued just days after the final US troops left Iraq, eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Sunnis 'oppressed'

At a news conference in Irbil, in Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan Region, Mr Hashemi described the charges against him as "fabricated".

"[I] didn't do any sin or anything wrong against any Iraqi, whether today or tomorrow and this my pledge to God," he said.

Analysis

Barely had the last American soldier stepped across the border into Kuwait than the fragile Iraqi political structure the US military left behind began to fall dangerously apart, as long-standing tensions between Shia and Sunni political leaders came to a head.

The most dramatic symptom of the exploding crisis is the fact that Iraq's most senior Sunni Arab politician, Tariq al-Hashemi, is effectively a fugitive. While he hides out under Kurdish protection in the north, the entire al-Iraqiyya political bloc to which he belongs has pulled out of both parliament and the cabinet.

That paralyses Sunni participation in the hard-won power-sharing deal that underpins a year-old national unity government which has rarely pulled together. Frantic efforts are now under way to try to hold that structure together.

The alternative, at its direst, could be the country's de facto partition, as part of a wider regional Balkanization along sectarian lines.

"Maliki is behind the whole issue," he added. "All the efforts that have been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone. So yes, I blame Maliki."

Mr Hashemi said he was nevertheless "ready to face trial" if the investigation was transferred to the authorities in Kurdistan, according to the AFP news agency.

He also called for representatives of the Arab League to take part in the investigation into his activities.

On Monday, the interior ministry announced that the warrant had been issued for the vice-president, and state-run television broadcast confessions by men it said were some of his security detail.

They said they had carried out terrorist attacks with his funding and support.

Iraq's Sunni Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlak, who belongs to the same al-Iraqiyya grouping as Mr Hashemi, earlier told the BBC that the country risked descending into renewed sectarian conflict.

Mr Mutlak said Iraq was facing "chaos and disaster" because of "the unwise running of the country by Mr Maliki".

He said the Sunni minority was "being oppressed" by Mr Maliki's Shia-dominated government, and called for a confidence vote in parliament. Al-Iraqiyya ministers are also boycotting cabinet meetings.

Mr Mutlak added: "Saddam was a dictator and Maliki is a dictator too."

A spokesman for Mr Maliki told the BBC that the arrest warrant was a judicial matter and should not be politicised.

Mr Maliki's aides have called for urgent talks to try to resolve the crisis.

The Kurdistan President, Masoud Barzani, has warned that the power-sharing deal which he brokered last year as the basis for the national unity government, is now in danger of collapsing.

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