Shortly before a wave of 15 bombings ripped through Baghdad on Thursday morning, killing more than 60 people, Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi warned that a simultaneous political crisis in the country could spiral "beyond control." In an interview with Foreign Policy on Wednesday from Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region where the vice president has fled to evade an arrest warrant, Hashemi declared that the Iraqi political system is "drifting from building democracy to building an autocratic regime" -- and implied that Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was becoming a new Saddam Hussein.
Earlier this week, Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, accused Hashemi, a Sunni, of running a hit squad targeting government officials during the height of sectarian strife in the country. In a press conference on Wednesday, Maliki went further, casting doubt on the sustainability of power-sharing in Iraq by threatening to replace the current unity government with a majority government if Hashemi's largely Sunni Iraqiya bloc doesn't end a boycott of parliament and the cabinet. The political crisis has sparked concern about sectarian violence returning to Iraq just days after the last U.S. troops withdrew from the country.
Hashemi has vehemently denied the charges against him, arguing that they are politically motivated and yet another effort by Maliki to consolidate power. When asked if Maliki has become a Saddam-like figure since assuming power in 2006, as fellow Iraqiya leaders Saleh al-Mutlak and Iyad Allawi have suggested, Hashemi noted that "many of Saddam's behaviors are now being exercised by Maliki unfortunately." But he added that Saddam rebuilt Iraq in six months after the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War in the early 1990s. In contrast, under Maliki's leadership, Hashemi pointed out, the consulting firm Mercer ranked Baghdad the worst city in the world in terms of quality of life.
And there's no question in his mind that Maliki is to blame.
"Now everything is in his hands: the ministry of defense, the ministry of the interior, intelligence, national security," Hashemi claimed. He wants his case transferred to Kurdistan because he doesn't think Iraq's judicial system is independent. Instead of judiciary authorities responding to his appeal, the vice president notes, Maliki himself shot down the request during his press conference yesterday, calling instead for Kurdish officials to hand over Hashemi. "The judicial system is really in his pocket," Hashemi argued.
When asked if Maliki is also in Iran's pocket, Hashemi responded that the prime minister "is very close to Iran" and that Iraqiya's Allawi -- not Maliki -- would be prime minister now if not for the "interference of Iran." When Iraqi leaders agreed to a power-sharing deal last year, Hashemi said, "Iran actively supported Maliki, and we discovered in due course that the United States also supported Maliki. Whether this was a coincidence or deliberate or behind-the-scenes coordination I don't know. But this is what happened."
Hashemi says he had a brief telephone conversation with U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey when the American diplomat cut short his holiday vacation and rushed back to Baghdad to help resolve the current standoff. "I asked him to do his best and try to reach some sort of compromises and try to accommodate this crisis," Hashemi explained. "He promised me to do his utmost and talk to Maliki." Hashemi says Ambassador Jeffrey also suggested that he would come and meet with the vice president in person, though this has yet to happen.