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Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Says Death Sentence is Politically Motivated

September 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: We now to turn to Iraq, where a major political figure was sentenced to death and more than 100 people were killed in a wave of attacks across the country.

Margaret Warner examines the ruling and sectarian unrest in the nation that borders Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Iraq’s fugitive vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, was all smiles Sunday in Turkey, despite word that he had been sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Baghdad.

Today, he called a news conference in Ankara to proclaim his innocence.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI, Iraqi vice president: I totally reject and will never recognize the unfair, the unjust, the politically motivated verdict.

MARGARET WARNER: The Sunni leader fled Iraq last December after he was charged with overseeing death squads that killed government officials and rivals between 2005 and 2011.

He accused Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, of ginning up the case. And he insisted today he will remain, in effect, an outlaw, rather than return to Iraq to seek a new trial.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: I consider verdict a medal on my chest and a fair cost that I have to pay in return of my absolute dedication in serving my country, Iraq, and my people, the Iraqis.

MARGARET WARNER: All of which raised new questions about Iraq’s ability to bridge its sectarian divisions and share power among majority Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

In Washington, that issue was much on the minds of State Department officials today.

VICTORIA NULAND, State Department: We are concerned about the potential for an increase in unhelpful rhetoric and tension on all sides. And we call on all of Iraq’s leaders to continue to try to resolve their disputes consistent with the rule of law.

MARGARET WARNER: Instead, major new violence erupted Sunday in Iraq, as bombings and shootings in more than a dozen cities killed more than 100 people, one of the highest death tolls this year.

None of the killings were directly linked to the Hashemi case, but al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for other recent high-profile attacks. The group has also announced it’s seeking to take back control of Sunni regions across Iraq.