Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who is charged with running a death squad, told AFP in an interview on Sunday he would not go to Baghdad to stand trial and raised the prospect of fleeing Iraq.
Hashemi, holed up at an official guesthouse of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the country's autonomous Kurdish region, acknowledged his guards may have carried out attacks, but he has steadfastly denied any involvement.
The warrant against Hashemi, issued nearly a week ago, has been the focus of a political row between Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which is a part of his national unity government and of which Hashemi is a member.
Asked if he would return to Baghdad to face trial, Hashemi told AFP: "Of course not." The 69-year-old attributed his refusal to travel to the capital to poor security and politicisation of the justice system. He said most of his guards had been arrested and had their weapons confiscated, adding that "there is no security for the vice president. How can I come back to Baghdad if I cannot secure myself?"
"The Iraqi judicial council is under the control and the influence of the central government, and this is a big problem," Hashemi added in a one-hour interview in Qalachwalan, on the outskirts of Kurdistan's second city Sulaimaniyah, during which he was surrounded by unarmed guards. "That is why I asked to move the case to Kurdistan. ... Justice here will not be politicised."
Since US troops completed their withdrawal a week ago, Iraq has been mired in political crisis, with Hashemi wanted and Maliki calling for the sacking of his Sunni deputy after the latter called him a dictator "worse than Saddam Hussein."
Iraqiya, the bloc of Hashemi and deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak, has boycotted parliament and the cabinet in protest at Maliki's alleged centralisation of power. US Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama's pointman on Iraq, has made a flurry of calls to Iraqi leaders this week, urging them to mend their fences.
In calls to Maliki on Sunday and Kurdish leader Massud Barzani on Saturday, Biden "exchanged views... on the current political climate in Iraq and reiterated our support for ongoing efforts to convene a dialogue among Iraqi political leaders," the White House said in a statement.
Coupled with a spate of attacks on Thursday in Baghdad which killed 60 people, the political row has heightened sectarian tensions in Iraq. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meanwhile, has said Ankara would not turn Hashemi away if he requested asylum, but said he should stay in Iraq.
"I have no intention to leave Iraq at this time, unless my personal security is endangered," Hashemi said in Sunday's interview. "Then, we will talk about this."
He added that he was still fulfilling his duties as vice president, and "if I decide to travel outside Iraq, it will be related to my responsibilities as a vice president and not to have political asylum."
The arrest warrant against Hashemi was issued on Monday, after authorities aired footage of what they claimed were the vice president's guards confessing to carrying out attacks, for which they said they received financial and moral support from Hashemi himself.
"I don't know why he did this," Hashemi said, referring to Maliki. "Even if there were accusations and crimes committed by my bodyguards, we could have postponed it (the warrant)." "I don't know why this happened the day after the last American soldier left," the vice president added.
Hashemi, who left the Iraqi army in 1975, has been vice president since 2006. As part of a power-sharing deal after March 2010 elections, Hashemi retained the post, and is one of two vice presidents, along with Khudayr al-Khuzaie, a Shiite Muslim.
He said that the prospects of resolving the political row depended on Maliki and his National Alliance bloc. "This crisis has blown up, this is a big crisis," he said. "The situation is now more complex than before -- if we fail, I think Iraq will slip towards tyranny again, and Iraq and Iraqis, all of them, will lose."