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Iraq's exiled vice president sentenced to death as violence grows

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Burhan Ozbilici/AP

(Read caption) Iraq's Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi speaks to the media as he leaves a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, (unseen), in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday. An Iraqi court found the nation's Sunni vice president guilty Sunday of running death squads against security forces and Shiites, and sentenced him to death in absentia.

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Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was sentenced to death today over what he asserts are politically-motivated terrorism charges, in the latest move by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government that is certain to stoke sectarian tensions in the troubled Arab nation.

His son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan was likewise sentenced to death by hanging. Mr. Hashemi, the country's most senior Sunni Arab official, was targeted for prosecution within a week of the US military's departure from Iraq last December. Since, he's been on the lam, telling anyone who will listen that Maliki, a Shiite community leader, is amassing dictatorial powers for himself and creating the conditions for a renewed sectarian civil war in the country. In an interview weeks before today's verdict, the one-time staunch critic of the US occupation said he was looking to the US for assistance, and that unbridled sectarianism was threatening the country's tenuous stability.

"I am very much concerned about the future, I can say that my country has reached a turning point, because of the sectarian and unqualified management of Maliki and the trouble-making of Iran," Hashemi told me. "Now all possibilities are coming on the table because of the injustice, the wide-scale corruption. People are getting fed up... people will be forced to think of other drastic solutions to get rid of this ongoing injustice… I’m very scared. And feel very, very much worried about the future."

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The growing alienation of Sunnis from the political process has been the main driver of this year's rising death toll, as today's more than 80 killings, many of which occurred before the announcement, remind. The conviction of Hashemi will confirm the second class status of Sunnis in many minds, and likely lead to more attacks.

The promised "reconciliation" that was supposed to follow the US troop surge under General David Petraeus in the closing years of the Iraq war never came. Instead, Iraq's Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish political leaders have remained in their tribal camps.

Iraqi politics has settled down into a long, sectarian cold war, occasionally punctuated by blood. How much blood? Iraq lost 3,063 lives to terrorism in 2011, only behind Afghanistan in fatalities.

July was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2010, with 325 people killed. Though that number dropped to 164 in August, today's bloodshed occurred in at least 7 cities, a sign of the widening arc of violence. The bloodiest attack was in the heavily Shiite southern city of Amara, where car bombs outside a Shiite shrine killed at least 16 people.

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Charges

Within a week of of the US military departure last December, Hashemi was accused by the government of running a death squad that targeted Shiite officials. A lurid trial has been ongoing in his absence, with former bodyguards and aides confessing to rape, torture, and murder of senior security officials on the orders of Hashemi.

The politically charged prosecution began when Maliki's government paraded a number of Hashemi's guards on national TV, who confessed to a series of murders. Is it true? Hashemi angrily denies all charges, saying they are politically motivated and that the confessions were extracted under torture.

Torture and the threat of torture are routinely used to extract confessions from the guilty and innocent alike in Iraq, and the word "independent" before "judiciary" in Iraq is the thinnest veil of fiction. But almost none of the past decade's players in Iraqi politics are free from stain. Most senior politicians have dealt with members of sectarian death squads down the years, and more than a few have operated them directly. Visits to politicians in Iraq during the height of the war, whether they were Shiite, Sunni, or Kurd, required passing through their heavily armed bodyguards – men with wolfish grins accountable to no one but the man who paid their wages.

Hashemi has allegations of his own. "I think our situation in terms of human rights, is getting much worse than it used to be during Saddam Hussein’s regime," says Hashemi. "The Maliki government took innocent people and after 24 to 48 hours bodies were delivered to their families. 'These were not the man we were looking for and we’re sorry about your son,' is all they said."

So Iraqi politics are a particularly dirty business, and with justice pursued unevenly, with opponents of Maliki far more likely to face prosecution than allies, the dangers of the country's current course are obvious. Many Sunnis well remember the hanging of Mr. Hussein in 2006, which was videotaped and released on the Internet. The dictator was taunted while being led to the gallows and having the rope fitted around his neck, with shouted Shiite prayers and the name of Shiite militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr filling his ears in his final moments.

Execution by hanging has surged in Iraq this year, with 96 such executions through Sept. 6, compared to 68 in 2011. Many of the condemned were sentenced under "treason" and "terrorism" statutes.

Dictatorship?

As Hashemi and his allies tell it, Iraq’s unhealed sectarian wounds are being reopened. Hashemi has been left in the strange-bedfellow's position of urging greater US involvement in Iraq's affairs after having been for years a loud and frequent critic of the US military occupation of the country. Maliki, for his part, has been moving ever closer to Iran, even as his government negotiates a $12 billion arms purchase, including 36 F-16s, with the US.

"The American people should understand that the mission was not fulfilled, regardless of the high cost that was paid by American lives... therefore according to the framework agreement, the US should continue its mission in Iraq until there’s a real state, real institutions, and a real democracy," Hashemi said.

"Maliki is now monopolizing the ministry of the interior, of defense, of national security, of intelligence. He’s using nationalistic rhetoric but at the same time behaving in a very sectarian manner. If we are talking about democracy then how come all that happens in Iraq is considered a democracy? All under the control of one man and one party," he added.

Hashemi has headed the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Muslim Brotherhood-style political group, since shortly after the US invasion in 2003. A critic of the US occupation and the emerging Shiite-dominated political order, he was nevertheless willing to work within the political system.

During the US troop surge he was a main player in encouraging Sunni Arab tribesmen to join the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement that saw Sunni Arab militias abandon the insurgency and take on the government's cause.

He was clearly a figure of respect for Sunni militants. When this paper's former correspondent Jill Carroll was freed after three months as a hostage of Sunni jihadists (who had murdered the Monitor's translator Allan Enwiyah), she was dropped off at Hashemi's Baghdad offices. Now a reliable interlocutor with militants on behalf of the government is frozen out of the political process completely.

Maliki ascendant

Hashemi says "more than 100 of my guards have been arrested without explanation. Even civilians and staff in my office have been arrested. My office has been confiscated, my house has been confiscated. What kind of power does a prime minister have to do all this to a vice president?"

The worst of Iraq's Sunni-Shiite bloodletting may now be behind it, but the horrors of tens of thousands tortured and murdered and untold more maimed physically and psychologically are a burden that Iraqis will be working through for generations. The winner-take-all triumphalism of Maliki has served to stoke those sectarian flames anew. 

That is the bitter backdrop to Iraq's deteriorating politics. Factionalism is the name of the game, as Hashemi's legal problems make all too clear. With Al Qaeda-style jihadis resurgent, both thanks to local conditions and the civil war in neighboring Syria, there is little hope of a lasting peace breaking out in Iraq soon. 

Peace at any price is probably not Maliki's principal concern. The Shiite Islamist parties that backed him for the premiership are well-entrenched. While they have internal divisions, none of them are interested in doling out power to Sunni groups they generally associate with Saddam Hussein's hated regime.

Maliki is concerned with securing his domestic political position and staying friendly with his powerful neighbor Iran. He has longer standing debts. When Maliki fled a death sentence imposed by Saddam Hussein for his Islamist political activism in the late 1970s, Maliki was sheltered in Tehran and Damascus before finally returning home in 2003.

And though the violence is bad for the economy and for its victims, it is unlikely to threaten to dislodge Iraq's new powers from their perches. The new Iraqi army, armed and trained by the US and other foreign powers, is powerful enough to protect the country's new rulers, its officers answerable directly to the prime minister. 

But now with domestic politics deteriorating and the civil war in Syria, where Maliki is seen as backing Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a predominantly Sunni Arab uprising, the likelihood of a surge in Iraq violence is growing.

Anger and disillusion

The US troop surge that began in 2007 owed its short term success to the US outreach to Sunni militants (and the fact that the chauvinistic Al Qaeda-style hard core had alienated many of their allies). That was a time when Sunni Arabs had hope that while Iraq might never be as good for them as it was under Hussein, it could still be livable. The US paid Sunni militants to join the government cause in organized militias variously called the Awakening or Sons of Iraq, and arm-twisted Maliki and other Shiite politicians into promising those men would be integrated into the security services. Pretty quickly, the Islamic State of Iraq was on the run.

But Maliki has delivered on few of his promises to those Sunni militias. Many of their leaders have been arrested by his security services, many of their rank and file killed by both Shiite death squads and resurgent Sunni jihadis who branded them traitors.

Iraqiyya, a political party mostly supported by Sunni Arabs, won the most seats in the country's 2010 parliamentary election, but was outmaneuvered by Maliki when it came time to form a government.  "De-Baathification," the process of disqualifying predominantly Sunni officials from office who belonged to Hussein's Baath party that began when Paul Bremer ran the Coalition Provisional Authority, has continued apace.

Hashemi has been complaining about this for years. In 2009, he and other members of his party repeatedly warned US officials that the Sunni tribes who had joined the Awakening were disenchanted, particularly after the government rounded up some of their leaders. By 2010, Hashemi had completed his evolution from viewing the US agenda in the country with outright hostility to seeing America as the only hope for his community to ward off complete Shiite hegemony.

A promise to share power, particularly a distribution of senior defense positions to Sunnis and Kurds, was the price of forming a government after eight months of negotiations. The US leaned hard on Maliki to reach the power-sharing deal. But Maliki has remained the de facto minister of defense and interior.  

A US role?

The US has become a spectator to Iraq's sectarian politics, despite the estimated $4 trillion that the US will ultimately pay for the war in Iraq. Corruption is rampant. In 2011 Iraq was ranked 175th out of 182 in Transparency International's annual poll of corrupt countries. The electricity supply is intermittent, despite the country being one of largest oil producers in the world. Freedom of the press has steadily eroded.

Hashemi, looking for allies, wants the US to do something but he's not sure what. Asked if he'd like to see Washington use its planned arms sales to Iraq as leverage, he hedges. He suggests that's a step the US might try, but declines to say that's what he'd like to see happen. 

"The weaponry, the F-16, Iraq is in need of that, and even the heavy artillery is needed. I understand that," he says. "But we are facing difficulties, inside the federal government in Baghdad, or between the federal government and the [Kurdish Regional Government], so how come the US is sending more armaments to an unstable situation in Iraq? To the best of my knowledge I’m looking to the US and not any other country, so don’t ask me what sort of pressurized instrument we have to generate to rectify this situation. The US is still the most powerful country in the world, and they know what to do, all we are obliged to do is to tell the truth."


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