|Fears of sectarian violence increased after bombings in mostly Shia areas of Baghdad on Thursday [Reuters]
Iraq’s Sunni vice president, wanted for allegedly running an assassination squad, has accused Nouri
al-Maliki, the country's Shia prime minister, of waging a campaign against Sunnis and pushing the country toward sectarian war.
In an interview with on Friday, Tariq al-Hashimi 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 increased fears that Iraq could be thrown into new violence
following the exit of American troops.
The political crisis taps into the resentments that have remained in the country despite years of effort to overcome them, with minority Sunnis fearing the Shia majority is squeezing them out of politics. Many Shias, meanwhile, suspect Sunnis of links to insurgency.
“He's pushing the things to a catastrophe. And I'm not sure what's going to happen after that,'' Hashimi said of the prime minister.
Hashimi has been a guest in Kurdistan of Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, since Sunday when he traveled to the region to discuss the growing conflict between himself and Maliki's government.
A day later, the government in Baghdad issued an arrest warrant 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 Iraqi government maintains Hashimi orchestrated a campaign of assassinations carried out by his bodyguards. Earlier this week, they aired televised confessions of the bodyguards detailing how Hashimi gave them money for the hits.
Fears that the situation could spiral out of control were heightened by devastating bombings that tore through mostly Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad on Thursday and killed at least 69 people.
Hashimi is one of the leaders of Iraqiya, a Sunni-backed political bloc that has constantly clashed with Maliki's Shia coalition and accused him of hoarding power.
Several thousand Sunnis protested on Friday against Maliki After Friday prayers, with Sunni imams warning Maliki was seeking to foment sectarian divisions.
Protesters marched on the streets of Sunni-dominated Samarra, Ramadi, Baiji and Qaim, many waving banners in support of Hashimi, and criticising the government.
"The charges against Hashimi were orchestrated behind closed doors. Maliki is trying to remove Sunnis from power to get a tight grip, like as a new dictator of Iraq," said Ahmed al-Abbasi, a protester from Samarra.
United States intelligence agencies had warned that security gains in Iraq could degenerate into sectarian violence after the withdrawal.
Turmoil in Iraq would have wider consequences in a region where a crisis in neighbouring Syria is becoming increasingly sectarian, and Shia Iran, Turkey and Sunni Arab Gulf nations are all positioning for more influence.