Iraq has banned Sunni Muslim Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi from leaving the country, a security source said on Monday, sharpening a sectarian-tinged political crisis just after the last US troops departed. The completion of the US withdrawal on Sunday ended nearly nine years of occupation, but left many Iraqis fearful that a shaky peace between majority Shia and Sunnis might collapse and reignite sectarian violence. “We received the travel ban order for Hashemi,” said a senior security official, adding that the ban had been issued by five judges investigating allegations against the Sunni leader.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, has also asked parliament for a no-confidence vote against another leading Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is deputy prime minister, on the grounds that he lacked faith in the political process. Hashemi and Mutlaq are both leaders of the Iraqiya bloc, a secular group backed by minority Sunnis, which joined Maliki’s unity government only reluctantly and recently boycotted parliament sessions after complaining about being marginalized, even though it is the single biggest bloc in the assembly. Security sources and lawmakers said on Sunday an arrest warrant had been issued for Hashemi, one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, but that politicians had intervened to stop the arrest from being carried out.
Security sources, who asked not to be named, said the arrest warrant was issued after four of Hashemi’s bodyguards, who were arrested two weeks ago, accused him of links with terrorism. In a statement on Monday, Hashemi accused Maliki’s government of “deliberate harassment” after his plane was delayed for three hours at Baghdad airport. He had been heading for the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya to meet the Iraqi president. Security forces arrested three of Hashemi’s bodyguards on their way back from the airport, the statement said. Military forces surrounding Hashemi’s house for weeks had been beefed up. “The vice president has been very patient and is waiting for a reasonable explanation from the government parties concerned,” the statement said. “He is demanding the immediate release of the three officers who have been detained without judicial orders to arrest them.”
The renewed political infighting has overshadowed the US withdrawal and dominated Iraqi newspaper headlines on Monday. Fearing a deepening crisis that could push Iraq back into sectarian turmoil, senior Iraqi politicians were holding talks with Maliki and other leaders to contain the dispute.
The large-scale sectarian violence of 2006-07 has largely subsided, but tensions still simmer close to the surface, with many Sunnis feeling shunted aside by the rise of Shia power after the US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.