On December 19, 2011, Iraq’s powerful Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the most senior Sunni politician in the Iraqi government.
This inevitably stirred the already volatile Iraqi political pot interwoven with a very complicated and fragile religious and ethnic structure.
The allegations against al-Hashemi are grave: Iraqi prosecutors allege that he was the mastermind behind the killings of several people during the period 2005–2011. These included a top official in the National Security Ministry, another official in the Interior Ministry, a lawyer and six judges as well as many security officials and Shi‘i pilgrims. Although he fled the country, 73 of his bodyguards have been arrested and put on trial along with al-Hashemi, being tried in absentia, in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court.
In court hearings last month, some of his bodyguards and a senior Iraqi figure testified against him. A senior Sunni tribal Sheikh Khidhir Ibrahem al-Dulaimi, one of the suspects, confessed to the three-judge panel that he was a member of “the Brigades of 12th Revolution,” the armed group that has allegedly carried out the killings, and al-Hashemi was the main financier of the organization.
“I met him [Hashemi] six or seven times… He gave me money in my hand, 10–15 million dinars ($8,000–12,000) every time, which paid for salaries for the fighters… He asked me to carry out operations against police and army… These operations were filmed and sent to al-Hashemi.” The court also heard four more defendants, who accused al-Hashemi of masterminding the attacks. They also told the court that after the attacks, they were rewarded with $300 to $3,000 depending on their role.
From the beginning of the case, al-Hashemi has denied all charges and argued that the case is politically motivated, with a sectarian agenda, blaming Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for wanting to eliminate him in order to dominate the country without any rival. In terms of the testimonies given against him, he alleges that they are given under torture and three of his bodyguards already died under torture while false statements were being extracted from them. He refused to stand trial in Baghdad since he believes that al-Maliki would inevitably influence the court. Instead he has offered to be tried in northern Iraq.
The case is extremely important since it might shed light on one of the darkest periods of US occupation, and possibly deliver justice to the relatives of those that had fallen victim to terrorist killings. However, it seems the political implications of the case have overshadowed its legal implications and turned it into the centre of the on-going political struggle that is underway between regional powers.
There is no doubt that al-Hashemi is a skilful politician who managed to survive in the volatile environment of Iraqi politics. There were two important tools that enabled him to cling to power during this time: he presented himself as the representative of the Sunni minority in Iraq and cultivated strong relations with regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar by serving their interests, hence becoming an influential figure in Iraqi politics until the allegations against him emerged.
It seems his skills are still proving useful in the most difficult period of his career. Before the news hit the headlines in 2011, al-Hashemi fled to northern Iraq where the Kurds run a semi-autonomous state and stayed there for a while with the hope that the Maliki government would not escalate the situation any further leading to some kind of an agreement. However, al-Maliki did not succumb to Kurish pressure, forcing al-Hashemi to seek a better place to reside, where he could better guard himself against an outraged al-Maliki. Upon leaving northern Iraq, al-Hashemi visited Qatar and Saudi Arabia and then found a safe haven in Turkey, where the ruling Justice and Development Party gave him a warm welcome on April 9.
Considering his strong relations with Turkey, al-Hashemi knew it was an ideal place for him. He proved to be a handy tool for the Turks who worked hard to form al-Iraqiyya coalition led by Shi‘i Ilyad Alawi, to gain control over Iraqi politics. The Iraqiyya coalition that included ex-Ba‘th members, secular Sunnis and Shi‘is and nationalist Turkmens was doomed to failure as it did not represent the grassroots of Iraq. Eventually, the project failed and the government led by Nouri al-Maliki was formed but the significance of al-Hashemi did not diminish in the eyes of Turkish policy makers.
Thus, he was received by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan soon after his arrival and given a luxurious apartment in Istanbul with high-level protection by Turkish security agents. Even the arrest warrant issued by Interpol on May 8, 2012 did not change Turkey’s position. Ignoring Iraq’s reaction, Erdogan told reporters during a visit to Italy that “Hashemi continues with his initiatives regarding his legal problems… we gave him all kinds support on this issue and we will continue to do so.”
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag also made it clear that Turkey will disregard the arrest warrant when he commented to Anatolia News Agency: “We will not extradite someone who we have supported since the very beginning.” Turkey’s support for al-Hashemi has indeed outraged the Iraqi government and further strained relations between Baghdad and Ankara.
In Turkey, meanwhile, al-Hashemi has been opportunistically playing the sectarian card. He recently warned that existing political problems in Iraq may turn into an all-out sectarian war, echoing Turkish criticism of the Maliki government. The so-called Shi‘i-Sunni division, which is in fact being promoted by the House of Saud and Qatar as a pretext to curb Iran’s increasing influence in the region, would no doubt prove rewarding for al-Hashemi. Since he could not explain why he was singled out by the Iraqi government and its reasons for “conspiring against” him, in the present tense environment labeling the case as the outcome of a sectarian struggle that ultimately aims at Shi‘i crackdown on Sunni political groups would attract a large number of people to support him.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons to question the sectarian twist being given to the case against al-Hashemi. First, he did not hesitate to become an ardent supporter of al-Iraqiyya coalition that was led by Iyad Alawi, a Shi‘i politician. Second, Iraq’s Judicial Council, which first issued the arrest warrant against al-Hashemi, consists of 10 members: eight Sunni and two Shi‘is. Finally, according to Iraq’s political system, one of the vice presidents must be a Sunni, while the other a Kurd. Thus even if al-Hashemi were “eliminated,” another Sunni must replace him.
Unfortunately, it is the vulnerability of Muslims (not Islam) to fall into the trap of sectarianism that is eagerly orchestrated and promoted by Western powers or their regional allies. Of course, there have always been individuals who have wanted to make political gains through hatred and animosity that is artificially planted in the minds of Muslims. Time will tell if al-Hashimi is one of those opportunistic individuals or, as he puts it, “a victim of political vendetta.”