Tariq al-Hashemi, the Iraqi vice president whom authorities in Baghdad want to try on charges he ran death squads against Iraqi Shia officials, has arrived in Saudi Arabia from Qatar.
A Saudi government official told the Reuters news agency that Hashemi had arrived in the country on Thursday to perfrom the Umrah pilgrimage.
Another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to the AFP news agency, did not mention the pilgrimage, saying: “The vice president has arrived in the kingdom and he has met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.”
Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim, fled the Iraqi capital in December for Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region after the Shia-led central government issued a warrant for his arrest, inflaming sectarian tensions.
He has denied the allegations against him and says they are politically motivated.
Hashemi’s arrival in Qatar on Sunday, as part of what his office described as a regional tour, prompted Iraq to demand the Gulf Arab state “return him to Iraq to be tried”.
Doha’s acceptance of Hashemi sparked a wave of criticism by Iraq, which denounced Qatar’s actions as “unacceptable”.
Qatar rejected Baghdad’s demand to hand over Hashemi saying it violates “diplomatic norms”.
Hashemi’s arrival in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday as a pilgrim would be be seen as less inflammatory in Baghdad than his visit to Qatar, which was made in the guise of a visiting political leader.
Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have voiced concern for Sunni interests in Iraq under Maliki’s government.
Saudi Arabia views the Iraqi government as being a close ally of Iran.
In a 2008 US diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin was quoted as saying King Abdullah saw Maliki as “an Iranian 100 per cent”.
The row over Hashemi was followed by escalating tensions between several Gulf states and Iraq over how to end the bloodshed in Syria.
‘Tyrant of Damascus’
On Tuesday, Saudi and Qatari newspapers lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over his implicit criticism of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for their calls to arm Syrian rebels.
“Gulf [states] should boycott Maliki and his government,” wrote Tariq al-Homayed, the editor of Asharq al-Awsat, calling for the “punishment of all who stand with the tyrant of Damascus, first and foremost Maliki’s government”.
The campaign against Maliki came after he rejected “any arming [of Syrian rebels] and the process to overthrow the Assad regime,” arguing that the call to arm the rebels “will leave a greater crisis in the region”.
The Syrian crisis has raised sectarian tensions, as its minority rulers are Alawites – an offshoot of Shia Islam – who are trying to cling to power by brutally suppressing an uprising led by the country’s majority Sunnis.
Iraq’s Shia-dominated government came to power after the 2003 US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, whose government marginalised the country’s Shias for decades.