BAGHDAD – Former bodyguards for Iraq's fugitive vice president testified Tuesday that they were ordered to kill security officials and plant roadside bombs as a politically charged terror trial against the Sunni leader got under way.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who was in Turkey but faced trial in absentia, has denied all charges against him. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The case threatens to paralyze Iraq's government by fueling simmering Sunni and Kurdish resentments against Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who critics claim is monopolizing power. Al-Hashemi is an ardent critic of al-Maliki, whose government issued a warrant for the vice president's arrest the day after U.S. troops left Iraq last December.
Al-Hashemi has been accused of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011, according to the judicial council. The Iraqi government alleges that Sunni death squads were largely composed of his bodyguards and other employees.
The charges against the vice president span the worst years of bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as retaliatory sectarian attacks between Sunni and Shiite militants pushed the country to the brink of civil war. He has been in office since 2006.
Tuesday's testimony focused on more recent years, when violence ebbed but insurgents continued to attack security forces and other targets in a bid to undermine the Iraqi government in the run-up to the U.S. withdrawal in December.
Bodyguard Odai Ghazi Amin, who served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein, said he joined al-Hashemi's staff in 2008 and was ordered by the vice president's son-in-law in 2009 to escort bomb-planting missions on roads across Baghdad.
In 2011, Amin said he was told to assassinate an army general and a lawyer — orders he tried to avoid by asking for a job transfer. But he said he was threatened by the son-in-law, who ran al-Hashemi's office, that he would be killed and his family in danger if he refused the deadly missions.
Last September, Amin testified, he was summoned to meet with the vice president.
"Al-Hashemi told me that he is going to assign me to kill some officers who work against the interests of the state and to carry out operations on security checkpoints," Amin said.
Amin testified that after the meeting, al-Hashemi's son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan, who also faces terror charges, gave him and two other bodyguards silenced guns and told them to assassinate army Brig. Gen. Talib Balaasim. The bodyguards tracked down Balaasim in western Baghdad, and Amin testified that he killed the general, in a Sept. 26 drive-by shooting before returning to al-Hashemi's office in the heavily guarded Green Zone.
"About two days after the attack, al-Hashemi received us (in his office) and said to us, 'God bless your efforts,'" Amin testified. He said the bodyguards shared a $3,000 payment.
Amin's account was later contradicted by testimony from another bodyguard, Yassir Saadi Hassoun. Hassoun said he and his brother opened fire on Balaasim, not Amin.
A third bodyguard, Ahmed al-Jubouri, described a November 2011 shooting that killed national security official Ibrahim Saleh Mahdi and his wife. Al-Jubouri said Mahdi was ordered killed because he had become "a source of annoyance" to al-Hashemi.
Al-Hashemi is in Turkey, where he has said he is receiving medical treatment. His spokesman, Fahad al-Turki, said al-Hashemi was not available to comment on Tuesday's proceedings. Ahmed Qahtan also is in Turkey.
He has hotly denied the charges, and accuses the government of torturing his bodyguards to obtain confessions from them. The Iraqi judiciary last month investigated and dismissed his claims.
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.
His allies 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 that opposes al-Maliki.
Al-Hashemi's trial has also strained relations between Iraq and several of its mainly Sunni neighbors, including the Gulf states and Turkey.
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.
The trial was scheduled to resume on Sunday.
Underscoring the continued violence in Iraq, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-rigged fuel truck into the front gate of an army post in the northern city of Mosul, a former al-Qaida stronghold, wounding 15 people, authorities said.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.