BAGHDAD – From self-exile in Turkey, Iraq's fugitive vice president scoffed Monday at a Baghdad court that sentenced him to the gallows for masterminding death squads against rivals, describing it as a puppet of the prime minister and saying he will not return to appeal the verdict.
The conviction of Tariq al-Hashemi, one of the nation's highest-ranking Sunni officials, rids Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of a top political foe while threatening to deepen the rift between Iraq's main Muslim sects as the nation struggles to achieve stability nine months after U.S. troops withdrew.
Hours after the verdict was announced on Sunday, insurgents launched fierce bombings against mostly Shiite neighborhoods in the capital, killing 92 and wounding over 360 in one of Iraq's deadliest days this year. In a statement posted on a militant website Monday, Iraq's wing of al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the countrywide attacks and promised "black days ahead." Later in the day, a car bomb exploded outside a restaurant in southwest Baghdad, killing eight people and wounding 32, security and health officials said.
Appearing alternately affable and defiant at a packed press conference in Turkey's capital, al-Hashemi maintained his innocence after being found guilty of organizing the murders of a lawyer and a Shiite security officer.
"The verdict is unjust, politicized, illegitimate and I will not recognize it. It means nothing to me," al-Hashemi, who took office in 2006, told reporters in Ankara. "But I put it as a medal of honor on my chest because it was al-Maliki, not anyone else, behind it. For me, this proof that I'm innocent."
"The death sentence is a price I have to pay due to my love to my country and due to my loyalty to my people," he added. "I'm ready to stand before a fair judicial system and not a corrupt and paralyzed one that is under al-Maliki's will and oppression."
Spokesmen for al-Maliki and the Shiite-led government could not immediately be reached for comment Monday despite repeated attempts, but in the past have denied that the prime minister influenced the trial.
The charges against al-Hashemi and his son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, were announced the day after U.S. troops left Iraq last December as part of new allegations they played a role in an estimated 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks during the height of sectarian violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Prosecutors said the attacks were carried out mostly by al-Hashemi's bodyguards and other employees, and largely targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims. The Baghdad court sentenced both al-Hashemi and Qahtan in absentia to death. They have 30 days to appeal the verdict and could win a retrial if they return to Iraq to face the charges.
Al-Hashemi says his bodyguards were tortured into giving false statements and refuses to return if the retrial is held in Baghdad, accusing al-Maliki of controlling the judicial system. "I'm not going regardless of the time scale that has been offered to me," he said.
While he is on Interpol's most-wanted list, Turkey has shown no interest in extraditing al-Hashemi, straining diplomacy between the two neighboring nations.
Al-Hashemi, one of two vice presidents, was little more than a figurehead in the government, wielding almost no power under the constitution. The office was stripped of powers after a years-long rivalry between al-Hashemi and al-Maliki that peaked in 2009, when the vice president vetoed an election law in order to increase the political clout of his fellow Sunnis. A compromise was eventually reached, but al-Maliki was incensed by al-Hashemi's stubbornness at a time when fears were high that Iraq could again slide into sectarian-based conflict if its political factions were unable to work together.
In a statement on Monday, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani said the verdict against al-Hashemi could exacerbate tensions and instability.
"It is regrettable that at this specific time such a verdict is issued against him while he still occupies his post," said Talabani, a Kurd. "That can't help, and can only complicate, efforts aiming at achieving a national reconciliation."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland cited "concerns about the way this has been dealt with" but declined to mention specifics. She said al-Hashemi still could appeal the decision, and that the U.S. would monitor the case going forward.
Whether or not he returns, Iraqi political analysts believe the verdict against al-Hashemi strengthens al-Maliki's power at a time his critics have accused him of sidelining rival Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers. As such, the prime minister could have a hard time shaking the perception that the trial was vulnerable to political pressure.
"The whole issue is supposed to be a legal one, but no one can deny that there is some politics in it," said Baghdad-based political analyst Khadum al-Muqdadi. "Now that the court finished its part, the scary thing is the possible ramifications and sectarian consequences in the Iraqi street. And all need to work to avoid that."
The idiosyncrasies of al-Hashemi, 70, had set him apart in Iraqi politics. His natty suits prompted U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in January 2011 to declare him as "the best dressed man in the Middle East." Al-Hashemi also frequently refers to himself in the third person, as he did Monday when he told reporters, "al-Hashemi has become the symbol of injustice in Iraq."
Torchia contributed from Istanbul. Associated Press Writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.