Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has issued an arrest warrant for the country's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, citing antiterrorism laws -- a move that threatens to plunge the fragile country into a political crisis.
The development comes barely a day after U.S. forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq, raising the specter of heightened instability and sectarian tensions.
At a news conference in Baghdad on December 19, the Interior Ministry's Major General Kamal Hussein announced that that a committee of judges had issued an arrest warrant for Hashimi, after earlier barring the vice president from leaving the country
Meanwhile, state broadcaster Al-Iraqiya TV aired 30 minutes of grainy footage showing what the Interior Ministry said were three of Hashimi's bodyguards confessing to planning and carrying out terror attacks, and receiving funding and support from the vice president.
They described planting bombs in public squares and opening fire on convoys carrying Iraqi officials.
One of the men said Hashimi had handed him an envelope with $3,000 after carrying out one of the attacks.
Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak, also a Sunni from Hashimi's bloc, said the televised confessions were "political" and said Iraqiya did "not recognize them".
According to "The New York Times," an aide for the vice president said the men shown in the video had worked for him, but denied all of the allegations.
'Heading Toward Deep Crisis'
The aide said Hashimi is currently in the north of the country, meeting with Kurdish officials to defuse a growing standoff with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a longtime rival.
Earlier on December 19, the vice president's office complained of "intentional harassment" in the form of a security force blockading his home for several weeks, as well as other incidents.
Also earlier on December 19, Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, called for urgent talks to prevent the "collapse" of the country's national unity government, warning "the situation is headed towards deep crisis."
The developments in Baghdad did not go unnoticed in Washington, where U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland suggested that the issuance of the arrest warrant had more to do with political infighting than terrorism:
"We are talking to all of the parties; we've expressed our concern regarding these developments," she said. "We're urging all political sides in Iraq to work out their differences peaceably, politically, through dialogue, and certainly, in a manner that is consistent with democratic political processes and international standards of rule of law."
The issuance of the arrest warrant follows a tumultuous weekend, during which Hashimi's Al-Iraqiyah bloc said it was boycotting parliament to protest what it said was the prime minister's monopoly on power.
Maliki has effectively controlled the interior and defense ministries for more than a year, while conflicts between Sunni and Shi'ite politicians have delayed the appointment of permanent ministers.
On December 18, Maliki accused members of the vice president's security staff of involvement in the November 28 bombing outside parliament, which he said had targeted him.
Uncertainty And Fear
He called for Hashimi and Deputy Prime Minister Mutlak to be ousted from their posts.
More than a dozen of the vice president's bodyguards have also been detained in recent weeks.
The Al-Iraqiyah bloc, which holds 82 seats in the 325-member parliament and controls a number of ministerial posts, has not pulled out of the national unity government.
The bloc garnered most of its support from Iraq's Sunni minority and emerged with the most seats in March 2010 elections.
However, Maliki, whose party finished second in those polls, struck a deal with another group to broaden his power base and retain his prime ministerial seat.
Deputy Prime Minister Mutlaq has warned in recent days that Iraqiya could take a further step if its demands are not met, pulling its ministers out of Maliki's government.
It remains to be seen whether the bloc will follow through on that threat in the wake of Hashimi's arrest warrant.
Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, wrote, "It is clear that the withdrawal of U.S. forces has removed an important deterrent from Iraq’s political environment that helped stabilize discourse and expectations from the various conflicting factions."
"Without the pacifying effect of the U.S. military, uncertainty and fear appear to be shaping Iraqi politics, making scenarios where actions spiral towards armed conflict and fragmentation more likely," he added.
with agency reports