Iraq's Fugitive Vice President

Shwan Mohammed / AFP-Getty Images

On Dec. 18 in Baghdad, a plane carrying Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, was stopped before it could take off. Instead, Hashimi and his bodyguards were escorted off the aircraft. When the plane was finally allowed to leave, two of Hashimi’s men were arrested on charges of terrorism. Thus began a national crisis and the beginning of the unraveling of Iraq’s fragile democracy.

Following a warrant for his arrest issued by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Hashimi has since taken refuge in a Kurdish enclave in the country’s north. And so the nation’s foremost Sunni leader became its top fugitive—he stands accused of running death squads and sponsoring a suicide attack in 2005. He denied these allegations over many cups of tea when interviewed by Newsweek recently in a military compound near the city of Sulaymaniyah.

“I committed to a peaceful political process when I became the head of Iraq’s Islamic parties,” Hashimi told Newsweek. “I gave my word to Iraqis and even Americans. If I had been running a death squad and the prime minister knew about it [for three years], as he says, why did he let [me] kill so many people for years?”

Hashimi’s host in the compound in the mountains stretching toward the Iranian border is technically still his boss—Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, in whose guesthouse the interview was held. But everything else about Iraq’s future is fluid at the moment.

“After eight years of reconciliation, we thought Iraq was becoming a country with an identity, not a mix of components. Maliki is cleaning up the political space for a one-man show,” Hashimi said, as he debated whether to attend a “national crisis conference” suggested by Kurdish leaders.

The episode will inevitably pit Iraq’s main factions against one another and rattle its democracy. Hashimi, the 69-year-old Islamist turned statesman, is the most senior Sunni political figure and was also instrumental in quelling the insurgency after 2007. During the 2010 elections, he was part of Al-Iraqiya, a coalition of Sunni, Shiite, and secular politicians. They won the largest number of votes but eventually lost to Maliki’s Iranian-backed Shiite bloc during the post-election horse trading.

Once a champion for strong central government, Hashimi is now singing a different tune: “If Maliki continues to be the prime minister, my people [the Sunnis] are worried about their future in Iraq and thinking seriously about establishing their own [autonomous] regions.” But what Iraqis—and regional powers like Turkey—worry about is a darker scenario: a possible return to the sectarian violence that domi-nated the country for much of the past decade.

Did the Americans leave too soon? “It’s not that they left too early,” Hashimi said. “In fact, they left too late. The problem is what they have left behind. The mission is not accomplished. They toppled the Saddam regime, but the real challenge is the second phase, establishing a state of law and independent institutions, and that has not been fulfilled.” Sectarian interests, corruption, terrorism, and Iranian influence continue to be power-ful factors in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Hashimi advocates replacing his nemesis in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki. “The U.S. left my country with challenges beyond our capacity to solve,” he said. “Maliki cannot be part of a solution. We [Sunnis] cannot reach a reconciliation with Maliki anymore. Anyone else could replace him within the Shiite national alliance. But it has to be someone who believes in rule of law, the future of [Iraqi] institutions, and power sharing.”

Asli Aydintasbas is a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet.