Iraq's Sunni vice president denied Shiite accusations that he organized death squads, describing the charges Tuesday as a trumped-up case brought only after the departure of U.S. troops.
The arrest warrant issued against the highest-ranking Sunni politician threatens to tear apart Iraq's coalition government and perhaps kick-start another Sunni insurgency. It raised suspicions that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi as part of a campaign to consolidate his hold on power out of a fear that Sunnis in and out of Iraq are plotting against him.
Sunnis, the minority Muslim sect in Iraq, feared a new round of sectarian warfare could result from the charges, announced the day after the last American soldiers left the country. The accusations date from the height of the war in 2006-07, when neighbors turned on neighbors and whole sections of Baghdad were expunged of one Muslim sect or the other.
Kurdish leaders were trying to work out a solution, sheltering al-Hashemi from arrest in their semiautonomous region in northern Iraq.
"I swear to God that al-Hashemi didn't commit any sin or do anything wrong against any Iraqi either now or in the future and this is my pledge to God," al-Hashemi said at a news conference in which he accused al-Maliki of ordering the warrant.
Al-Hashemi spoke from the Kurdish city of Irbil, where he traveled Sunday after learning that authorities were preparing to arrest him.
Although the Kurdish region is part of Iraq, al-Hashemi is probably safe from Baghdad's reach. Kurdish leaders run their own security affairs.
Monday, state-run television aired what it characterized as confessions by men said to be bodyguards for al-Hashemi. The men said they killed officials working in the Health and Foreign ministries, as well as Baghdad police officers, and that they received $3,000 from al-Hashemi for each attack.
There was no way to know whether there was any substance behind the charges against al-Hashemi. Some Shiite politicians have also been accused of nefarious acts but have not been charged.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration is "obviously concerned" about the case and is urging all sides to resolve their differences peacefully.
"We urge the Iraqi authorities charged with this responsibility to conduct their investigations into alleged terrorist activities in accordance with international legal norms and full respect for Iraqi law," he said.