BAGHDAD – An Iraqi judicial panel said Thursday the Sunni vice president and his employees ran death squads that killed security officials and Shiite pilgrims. The findings, touted as the first independent assessment of the accusations, were likely to only further hike sectarian tensions over the politically divisive case.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has denied the charges, and the accusations have angered many Sunnis who see them as part of a campaign by the Shiite prime minister to push them out of politics.
After wrapping up a two-month investigation, the nine-judge committee found at least 150 cases where either al-Hashemi, his bodyguards or other employees were linked to attacks ranging from roadside bombs to assassinations of security agents and Shiite pilgrims, Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said.
Bayrkdar did not offer any evidence to support the panel's conclusions, which are not legally binding. He said the death squads operated from 2005 to 2011, and were responsible for a bombing last December on the government's Integrity Commission headquarters that killed 25 people and the assassination of a deputy education minister in 2010.
A spokesman for Al-Hashemi declined to comment.
The Interior Ministry, which is effectively run by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, issued an arrest warrant for al-Hashemi in December -- right as the last of the thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq were leaving the country after more than eight years of war. Al-Hashemi is a member of the secular but Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political party, whose lawmakers have rejected the charges as bogus.
The case stems in part from television footage that aired on state-run TV in December, showing purported confessions by men said to be al-Hashemi's bodyguards. The men said they killed officials working in Iraq's health and foreign ministries, as well as Baghdad police officers. They said they received $3,000 from al-Hashemi for each attack.
Raad al-Dahlaki, a fellow Sunni and Iraqiya lawmaker, rejected the panel's findings, saying "there is not clear evidence against al-Hashemi."
"These charges are against his bodyguards," he said. "If they are true they have to face fair trials -- not politically motivated ones that put pressure on the judicial system."
Since the warrant, al-Hashemi has taken refuge from arrest in the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq and refuses to return to Baghdad where he says he does not feel safe and is unlikely to receive a fair trial. He and other Sunni officials allege the judiciary is not independent of al-Maliki's government. He accused al-Maliki of coordinating a smear campaign against him as part of a power grab.
Ali al-Moussawi, a media adviser for the prime minister, declined to comment on Thursday's findings, but said he doubted they will disrupt Iraqi politics because "all believe in the independence of the judicial system, which must continue working in that way."
The investigation was ordered by Supreme Judicial Council's chief judge, Medhat al-Mahmoud, a few days before al-Hashemi's arrest warrant was publicly announced. Al-Mahmoud created the panel specifically to investigate the charges against the vice president.
One of the panel's judges, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak about the committee's members , said that Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Turkomen sat on the panel.
"We are an independent body that is not linked to any executive body," Saad al-Lami, another of the nine judges, said after the findings were announced. He said al-Maliki's office has "nothing to do with these investigations."
The panel's findings will be turned over to Iraqi criminal courts, Bayrkdar said. They clear the way for the relatives of those killed to file lawsuits against al-Hashemi, he added.
The political crisis triggered by the case has tapped into lingering resentments between Sunnis and Shiites. The minority Sunnis fear they are being politically sidelined by the Shiite majority as payback for the years of persecution under Saddam Hussein, who favored the Sunnis.
At the same time, many Shiites suspect Sunnis of links to the still near-daily attacks by al-Qaida or other insurgents that continue to claim lives. Two policemen on a foot patrol in southern Baghdad were killed late Thursday by a drive-by shooter, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
"The accusations against al-Hashemi are nothing but a farce," said Sunni government employee Ahmed Abdul-Rahman, 38, who lives in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad.
"The announcement is a political conspiracy against al-Hashemi that aims to sideline Sunnis. How and why would the government and its security forces allow al-Hashemi to commit dozens of crimes during the past years without trying to stop him?" he said.
Even some Shiites greeted the findings with skepticism, reflecting the weariness many Iraqis feel with the seemingly endless government infighting that risks sparking sectarian violence.
Hassan Hamid, 35, a Shiite trader from eastern Baghdad, said some in the government are trying to stir up sectarian problems and that al-Maliki wanted to divert attention from Iraq's problems.
"This is political immaturity when the government officials are ignoring the devastated country and people and direct all of their attention to settle old scores with political opponents," he said.