BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated government ordered the arrest Monday night of Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a Sunni, after televising the reputed confessions of three bodyguards that implicated him in a string of assassinations of leading Shiite military and government officials.
The arrest warrant and the broadcast, both of which appeared to be initiated by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, intensified the political and sectarian crisis that erupted over the weekend just as the last U.S. forces rolled south to Kuwait, ending the nearly nine-year American military presence here.
Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, warned that the escalating tensions threatened Iraq's multi-party coalition government. Without serious effort to bring about a broad political accord, it could lead to the "collapse of the political process," Barzani said.
Without mentioning Maliki by name, Barzani chided national police for detaining Hashimi and several other top Sunni leaders at Baghdad airport Sunday evening as they were en route to dinner with him. The episode, he said, was "irresponsible and inelegant," and he added: "The security side should not be politicized or used for other purposes."
Hashimi was last reported to be in the Kurdish city of Erbil, and several members of parliament said they thought he might try to flee the country for Turkey. Turkey has had close ties with Hashimi, and Iraqi parliamentarians who just returned from a trip there said that Turkish officials were highly concerned that Maliki was taking extreme and unconsidered measures against prominent Sunni politicians.
The airing of the "confessions" in prime time on state-run Iraqiya television flew in the face of an order by a five-judge committee not to put them before the public until the panel had fully investigated the charges. The U.S. Embassy and many leading political figures had urged the same thing, but in vain.
After the confessions aired, an Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Adel Daham, waved a copy of a document before reporters that he said was a warrant for Hashimi's arrest. Iraqi television reported that security forces — which have sent hundreds of troops and dozens of tanks, personnel carriers and armored Humvees into Baghdad's Green Zone — earlier had raided Hashimi's offices.
Although several members of parliament said they believed there was a serious case against Hashimi, the staging of the trial-by-television could backfire against Maliki.
In more than half an hour of grainy black-and-white video recordings, three men described as Hashimi's bodyguards detailed bomb attacks they carried out going back to 2009 that were directed against government security forces. The weapons used were bombs and pistols with silencers.
The men spoke in monotones, and it was impossible to determine if their statements were of their own free will, as claimed by Maliki aides, or coerced. It appeared that a small selection of their interrogations was presented, evidently edited to provide maximum support for the government position that Hashimi headed the chain of command of what amounted to assassination squads.
One guard, Ahmed Abdul Kareem Mohammed, who said he was an Iraqi army officer, denounced Hashimi as "a criminal" who had destroyed the guard's life and that of his family. He quoted Hashimi's secretary as saying: "The vice president assigned you the mission of killing this officer, and I want you to be brave." Mohammed said he told him, "I am ready."
Along with three other guards, he said he waited for the target on the Mohammed Al Qasim highway in Baghdad. After waiting 10 minutes, he received a phone call from a man named Abu Ahmed, who said the officer, named Ehsan, would drive past in a white pickup in about 10 minutes.
"He is a Rafidhi dog," the caller said, using an epithet for Shiites. "After about seven minutes, the target came and we killed him," he said.
Mohammed said that three other men joined him in another operation in April, the assassination of a security officer identified only as Col. Mustafa. The setting was the same Al Qasim highway. He said he was told: "When he passes you with his car, chase him and kill him."
"After six minutes, the target arrived, and Ali Mahmoud killed him," he said, referring to another guard.
Mohammed said he was willing to go before the Iraqi parliament and answer questions live on television, providing evidence of "the previous and new crimes."
Ghassan Abbas Jasim, another officer in the vice president's security detail, also directly implicated Hashimi. He quoted the vice president saying that if another officer, Maj. Ahmed Shawqi, issued an order, "it means these are my orders, and you have to implement them."
The first operation he described targeted security forces near a restaurant in Baghdad's upscale Mansour neighborhood in 2009. He said that he and his brother went with Shawqi to pick up a bomb from one of Hashimi's residences and planted it near a sidewalk. They detonated the bomb when the street was crowded, he said, and when security forces arrived at the scene they detonated a second bomb.
In another operation that same year, he said, Shawqi told them to go to a restaurant in east Baghdad and plant a bomb inside a plastic garbage bag.
"When a convoy came, we detonated the bomb. Later, we knew it was the convoy of the minister of health," Jasim said.
The third officer, identified as Marwan Mtheber al Dulaimi, said he was paid $500 to carry out his first operation, against Iraqi army vehicles in the town of Bab al Sharji. His second was to kill Col. Ehsan.
He also confessed to joining a plot to plant a car bomb against Shiite pilgrims observing the Ashoura holiday earlier this month.
(McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)
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