BAGHDAD – The bodyguard for Iraq's fugitive vice president testified Tuesday that he was paid $3,000 to assassinate a government security official in one of hundreds of death squad killings that authorities link to one of the nation's highest-ranking Sunni leaders.
The testimony came on the first day of the Iraqi government's terror trial against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who was not in court. He denies the charges -- that for years he ordered killings of Shiite pilgrims and government officials -- and says they are politically motivated.
The case against al-Hashemi threatens to paralyze Iraq's government by fueling simmering Sunni and Kurdish resentments against the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who critics claim is monopolizing power. The Sunni vice president has been a longtime critic of al-Maliki, whose government issued a warrant for al-Hashemi's arrest the day after U.S. troops left Iraq last December.
Bodyguard Ahmed al-Jubouri testified that he gunned down the security official, identified as Ibrahim Saleh Mahdi, in November 2011 on al-Hashemi's orders. Al-Jubouri said Mahdi's wife also was killed in the drive-by shooting on a Baghdad highway.
"The next day, al-Hashemi received me (in his office) and rewarded the team with a sum of $3,000," al-Jubouri told a three-judge panel at Baghdad's criminal court. "At the end of the meeting, the vice president said to me, 'God bless you."'
Al-Jubouri said the death was ordered because Mahdi had become "a source of annoyance" to al-Hashemi.
Al-Hashemi currently is in Turkey, where he has said he is receiving medical treatment. His spokesman, Fahad al-Turki, said al-Hashemi could not immediately be reached for comment.
Some see the trial as another political power battle in Iraq.
"As far as I'm concerned, the issue of al-Hashemi is more political than a legal one," said Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq of the Iraqiya political bloc, which opposes al-Maliki.
Evidence against al-Hashemi so far includes purported confessions by several men said to be his bodyguards who all claimed to receive money for each attack against officials working in Iraq's health and foreign ministries and Baghdad police officers.
Al-Hashemi has hotly denied the confessions, saying his bodyguards were tortured into making the statements. He gave a national speech in March accusing the government of torturing two of his bodyguards to death -- allegations that the Iraqi judiciary said it dismissed after an investigation.
The vice president believes he will not get a fair trial in Baghdad's criminal court, and has asked that the case be heard by a special tribunal appointed by parliament. On Tuesday, judicial panel rejected arguments by al-Hashemi's lawyers that the case should be further delayed while Iraq's Supreme Court weighs whether to move to the tribunal.
The trial is focusing on the killings of two security officials and a lawyer, incidents that happened in 2010 and 2011. If convicted of the terror charges, al-Hashemi could face the death penalty.
Earlier this month, Interpol issued a so-called "red notice" on al-Hashemi, which puts member countries on alert that he is wanted for arrest in Baghdad. But Turkey, which has provided sanctuary to al-Hashemi and is on tense terms with his opponents in the Iraqi government, is hesitant to pursue the Sunni vice president.
Turkish deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag has said al-Hashemi is in Turkey for medical treatment and that the country had no plans to extradite him. The minister also noted that Ankara had not had enough cooperation from Iraq in its efforts to detain supporters of the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which carries out attacks inside Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.
Al-Maliki's camp has blasted Ankara over the stance.
"Turkey is taking a position in supporting a symbol of terrorism in Iraq," said Saad al-Mutalibi, a lawmaker in the Shiite-dominated State of Law political bloc that al-Maliki heads. "We do hope that Turkey will reconsider this issue, otherwise Turkey will be considered as a country that is harboring terrorism."
The trial opened with three relatives of security officials and a lawyer who were killed between 2010 and 2011. They said they did not witness the attacks, and only complained against al-Hashemi after hearing the accusations against him in the Iraqi media.
Journalists were ordered to leave the court during the testimony of a fourth witness, identified only as a former employee in al-Hashemi's media office.