BAGHDAD - Iraq's Shiite prime minister told Kurdish authorities Wednesday to hand over the Sunni vice president, who fled to the semiautonomous region to escape an arrest warrant on charges that he ran hit squads targeting government officials.
Then a Kurdish presidential spokesman ruled out handing Tariq al-Hashemi over to Baghdad, turning up the heat under what has become the worst Iraqi political crisis in years.
The charges, leveled a day after the last American troops left Iraq, have opened up a new round of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions of the type that pushed the country to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
Hashemi, the country's highest ranking Sunni political figure, said Tuesday that the allegations by his longtime rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, were fabricated and politically motivated. He accused Maliki of concentrating power in his hands and torpedoing national reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
"I do not allow myself and others to bargain over Iraqi blood," Maliki said in his first public comments on the warrant. He said that Iraq was a unified county, and the Kurdish authorities should hand over Hashemi to the Iraqi justice system. "If they will not hand him over or let him flee or escape, this will lead to problems," the premier said.
There has been speculation that Hashemi may try to flee the country to Turkey, which shares a border with the northern Kurdish region.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered his country's help in resolving the Iraqi political crisis, but he was cool to the idea of hosting Hashemi. "As an Iraqi statesman, it would be more correct for him to remain in Iraq," he said.
The Sunni minority dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein until he was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The Shiites have held power ever since, and many Sunnis feel the Shiite-led government is determined to keep them from ever regaining positions of power.
The charges raised suspicions that Maliki ordered the arrest of Hashemi as part of a campaign to consolidate his hold on power out of fear that Sunnis inside and outside of Iraq are plotting against him.
Hashemi denied charges that he paid his bodyguards to kill government officials during the heyday of Iraq's Sunni insurgency. Most of the accusations date back to the height of the internal war in 2006 and 2007, when neighbors turned on neighbors and whole sections of Baghdad were expunged of one Muslim sect or the other.
Hashemi fled to the Kurdish region on Sunday, before the arrest warrant was announced and before purported confessions from his bodyguards aired on Iraqi television Monday evening. On Sunday, he was barred from leaving the country.
Maliki effectively runs the Interior Ministry, where the charges originated. Hashemi's Sunni-backed party, Iraqiya, which shares power in Maliki's government, has repeatedly accused the prime minister of hoarding power and last weekend boycotted parliament because Maliki refused to give up control over key posts such as the defense and interior ministries. The prime minister has not appointed permanent ministers of defense or interior since he came to office a year ago.
Hashemi has taken refuge in the Kurdish region, which is part of Iraq but has its own security forces. The Iraqi army and national police do not operate there.