Targeted Iraqi Leader Warned of His Fate in 2010 Newshour Interview

BY Margaret Warner  December 20, 2011 at 6:54 PM EDT

The story from Baghdad led Tuesday’s New York Times: Arrest Warrant for Sunni Leader Spurs Iraq Crisis. Just one day after the last U.S. forces departed Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government had ordered the arrest of the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi.

The accusations are stunning — that al-Hashimi had organized Sunni death squads that carried out orders to assassinate police officers and government officials. Al-Hashimi has fled Baghdad, and the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition — in partnership with the Maliki government — is threatening to bolt. U.S. officials see the danger of renewed Sunni-Shiite strife.

Today, under protection in Kurdistan, Al-Hashimi vigorously denied the charges, saying they’d been fabricated by Maliki as part of a campaign to consolidate control. “The country is in the hands of al-Maliki. All the efforts that have been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone,” he told reporters.

Al-Hashimi hit much the same theme when I sat down with him in August last year at his palace in Baghdad. As U.S. combat forces were preparing to exit Iraq, the country was gripped in a post-election stalemate between Al Hashimi’s Iraqiya party and Maliki’s. He made it crystal clear that he considered Maliki an autocrat in democratic clothing, who sought to tighten and hoard personal power, not share it. And he suggested Maliki would stop at nothing to cement it. Here’s an excerpt from our piece:

MARGARET WARNER: The dispute pits the top vote-getter, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his coalition of Sunnis and secular Shiites, against the close second-place finisher, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A Shiite, he, like Allawi, ran on a secular platform.

But the distrust is deep. Both sides raise the specter of utter catastrophe if their opponents assume the top position of power. Here’s what the country’s highest elected Sunni official, Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi, warns will happen if Maliki remains prime minister:

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI, Iraqi Vice President: This could lead easily to another dictatorship.

MARGARET WARNER: A dictatorship by whom?

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: By whoever, al-Maliki himself. If he’s going to be 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 — of a fragile democracy.

He and Maliki had entirely different concepts of what sort of country Iraq should be, Hashimi said: “There are major differences in mentality, major differences about the way the country should be run (and) a different interpretation about justice.” He accused Maliki of doing the bidding of neighboring Iran, who wanted to keep Iraq weak and divided along sectarian lines.

Most ominously, he predicted that if Sunnis weren’t included in a meaningful way in the government, “the response from the Arab Sunnis will be negative again. They are going to get entrenched in a sectarian way, and will be back to square one, the case that prevailed in 2006.” That year was among the bloodiest of the years of sectarian strife, when Iraqis awakened each morning to piles of bodies in the streets.

Sunnis could resort to violence again, he warned, if not included in the government. “Definitely there will be a disappointment, and I’m afraid that the disappointment might lead to anger,” he said. “And I don’t know where this could lead in the future — maybe a situation gets out of control.”

It’s not yet clear if al-Hashimi’s Iraqiya bloc will carry out its threat to quit the government over his ordered arrest. But if al-Hashimi’s right about likely Sunni reaction, the prospect is a chilling one for Iraqis — and the departing Americans — alike.