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After U.S. Pull-Out, Tensions Escalate in Iraq With VP Sought on Charges

December 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight, escalating political tensions in an Iraq no longer patrolled by American troops.

It was a hero’s welcome today at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington for American soldiers home for the holidays, and for the last time from Iraq.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman: Greeting you here today with your troopers is an honor and a privilege that I won’t long forget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president and the vice president looking on, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, welcomed back the officers who managed the U.S. withdrawal.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thirty million Iraqis are free today. They now have a choice in their future and an unprecedented opportunity to live in peace and prosperity inside Iraq, within the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the last U.S. convoy had hardly crossed into Kuwait on Sunday when Iraq was thrust into new and potentially dangerous political turmoil.

An arrest warrant was issued for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on charges that he had run death squads during the sectarian bloodbath of 2006 and 2007. As proof, the purported confession of a man named Ahmed was broadcast. He said Hashemi spoke to him through an intermediary.

AHMED, alleged death squad member (through translator): He told me, “I choose you to carry out serious tasks. And you are able to do them well. And you should implement what I want. Your interest and that of your family concern me.”

This means he warned me that, if I won’t implement such a mission, we will harm you and your family. I understood what he meant. I told him, yes, sir, at your disposal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Al-Hashemi, who is Sunni Muslim, angrily denied the charge today and he dared the government to try to arrest him in the Kurdish city of Irbil, where he’s taken refuge. The vice president also accused Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, of stoking barely controlled sectarian flames in a bid to consolidate power.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI, Iraqi vice president (through translator): Al-Maliki is behind the whole issue. The country is in the hands of al-Maliki. All the efforts that had been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone. So, yes, I blame al-Maliki.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is a charge al-Hashemi leveled in an interview last year with the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner in Baghdad.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: This could lead easily to another dictatorship.

MARGARET WARNER: A dictatorship by whom?

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: By whoever, al-Maliki, yes. If he’s going to be the prime minister, and he’s not going to change his course, definitely, this country is drifting to a dictatorship, within might be the umbrella of fragile democracy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Prime Minister, you’ve said that Iraqis seek democracy, a state of citizens and not sects.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just last week, President Obama had welcomed al-Maliki to the White House as the U.S. presence in Iraq wound down after nearly nine years.

BARACK OBAMA: People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that’s determining its own destiny, a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked what steps the administration is taking to quell the crisis.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: We are talking to all parties to express our concern regarding these developments. We continue to urge all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully. Ambassador James Jeffrey, as well as other U.S., senior U.S. officials, have been in frequent contact with Iraqi leaders on this matter and will continue to do so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, several high-profile Maliki opponents, like former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, have sided with al-Hashemi, as political and ethnic divisions flare once again.