Iraq's Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant Monday for the Sunni vice president, accusing him of running a hit squad that assassinated government and security officials -- extraordinary charges a day after the last U.S. troops left the country.
The vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, left Baghdad on Sunday for the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, presumably hoping that Kurdish authorities would not turn him in. Investigative judges banned him the same day from traveling outside of Iraq.
The move against the country's highest-ranking Sunni official marked a sharp escalation in sectarian tensions, raising fears of a resurgence of large-scale bloodshed.
"Iraq is slipping into its worst nightmares now, and Iraqi people will pay a high price because of the struggle among political blocs after the pullout of U.S. troops," said Baghdad-based political analyst Kadhum al-Muqdadi, a Shiite.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration had expressed its concerns to all of the parties involved regarding the issuing of the warrant.
Sunnis suspected the charges against al-Hashemi were politically motivated. Al-Hashemi is an old rival of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the arrest order came two days after the main Sunni-backed political bloc, Iraqiya, suspended its participation in parliament because al-Maliki refused to give up control over key posts.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has made a series of moves in recent months to consolidate his hold on power. Hundreds of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party have been rounded up, allegedly as security threats.
Al-Hashemi, one of two vice presidents in Iraq, could not be reached to comment.