QALACHWALAN, Iraq - The Sunni vice president wanted for allegedly running a hit squad in Iraq on Friday accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of waging a campaign against Sunnis and pushing the country toward sectarian war.
In an interview, Tariq al-Hashemi said 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 hiked fears that Iraq could be thrown into new violence following the exit of American troops.
The crisis taps into the resentments that have remained raw in Iraq despite years of effort to overcome them, with minority Sunnis fearing that the Shiite majority is squeezing them out of any political say, and Shiites suspecting Sunnis of links to insurgency and terrorism.
"He's pushing the things to a catastrophe. And I'm not sure what's going to happen after that," Hashemi said of the prime minister.
He spoke at a guesthouse of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the mountains overlooking the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Hashemi has been a guest of Talabani since Sunday when he traveled to the Kurdish region to discuss the growing conflict between himself and Maliki's government. A day later, the government issued an arrest 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 central government's security forces do not operate in the northern autonomous Kurdish zone.
The Iraqi government maintains that Hashemi orchestrated a campaign of assassinations carried out by his bodyguards. Earlier this week it aired televised confessions of the bodyguards detailing how Hashemi gave them money for the hits. The confessions have aired repeatedly, including on state TV when Hashemi earlier this week held a news conference defending himself.
Fears that the situation could spiral out of control were heightened by devastating bombings Thursday that tore through mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and killed at least 69 people.
Hashemi is one of the leaders of the Iraqiya party, a Sunni-backed bloc that has constantly clashed with Maliki's Shiite coalition and accused him of hoarding power. Maliki is also seeking a vote of no-confidence against the Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Security forces have also begun a wave of arrests against former members of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, which ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
In Sunnis' eyes, the moves are a sign that Maliki is out to get them.