Iraqi VP suggests trial witnesses were coerced

Iraqi VP suggests trial witnesses were coerced

In this Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 file photo, Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi speaks during an interview with the AP near Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo: AP)

May 18, 2012, Friday/ 12:44:00

Iraq's fugitive vice president said Thursday that former bodyguards who are testifying against him in a terror trial in Baghdad might have been pressured into doing so by security forces.

The trial in absentia of Tariq al-Hashemi, who is in Turkey, started this week when agents who used to protect him said they were ordered to kill security officials and plant roadside bombs. Al-Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim, is accused of supporting death squads whose targets included government officials and Shiite Muslim pilgrims. 

He told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday that he was innocent and a victim of a political vendetta by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim. The two have often sparred over the years in political battles as Iraq struggled to emerge from years of war and the U.S.-led occupation that followed the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. 

"I might in fact decide to stop dealing with the judicial system and withdraw all the lawyers and attorneys," said al-Hashemi, who alleges the trial amounts to political payback for his opposition to al-Maliki over the years. "I am absolutely innocent of all these allegations." 

The case threatens to paralyze Iraq's government by fueling simmering Sunni and Kurdish resentments against al-Maliki, who critics claim is monopolizing power. A warrant for al-Hashemi's arrest was issued the day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December. 

Interpol has issued a so-called "red notice" against al-Hashemi. It puts member countries on alert that he is wanted for arrest in Baghdad. In the interview, al-Hashemi suggested that Interpol had rushed to issue the notice without considering his record as vice president and his difficult relationship with al-Maliki, and that his Iraqi opponents were seeking to use the police agency to tarnish his reputation internationally. 

"I'm really disappointed," he said. He said Turkey, which has said it has no plans to turn over al-Hashemi to Iraq, had offered "technical help" in his case following the Interpol notice. 

"Many other Arab countries communicated with me and offered their services, and I'm making use of these services," he said. 

Regional powers Iran, led by a Shiite theocracy, and Turkey, which is mostly Sunni but espouses unity across sectarian lines, have supported opposing factions in Iraq. 

"I definitely feel secure in Turkey," al-Hashemi said. Though he added: "This is not the final destination, as far as I'm concerned. I'm planning to return back to my country." 

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