Iraq has formally asked authorities in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region to hand over Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and 12 of his entourage to face charges of running death squads, an Iraqi official said on Sunday.
Iraq's Shia-led government issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni politician in mid-December, shortly after the withdrawal of the last US troops, triggering a political crisis that threatens Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fragile governing coalition of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions.
The move against Hashemi and Maliki's request to parliament to remove Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, followed a few days later by a series of bombings in mostly Shia areas of Baghdad that killed at least 72 people, revived fears of sectarian strife in the OPEC oil producer.
"We sent an official request a day ago to the Interior Ministry and (security forces) of the Kurdistan region asking them to hand over al-Hashemi with twelve other suspects to judicial authorities in Baghdad," Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister, told Reuters.
Hashemi, who has denied the charges, travelled to the Kurdish region after the central government sought his arrest. He has said he cannot get a fair trial in Baghdad.
Judicial authorities of the Kurdish Regional Government confirmed they had received the request but declined to say if they would turn Hashemi over.
"We received today an arrest warrant against Tareq al-Hashemi with a decision prohibiting him from travelling," Dadyar Hameed, a spokesman for the Judiciary Council, told reporters in Arbil. "Due to the sensitivity of this issue we will only have this statement and (will) have further details later."
Kamal said it was not the first time Baghdad had asked Kurdish authorities to hand over suspects and fugitives.
"The regional authorities must respond to our request as we sent them arrest warrants issued from Iraqi courts and we have full cooperation in this respect," he said.
But he said the central government does not have the right to send security forces to arrest Hashemi in Kurdistan, which has its own military and police.
"The region has a special status of having its own security forces and that was set by the constitution. They can't come here and arrest suspects and we also can't go to the region and arrest suspects," he said. "This is a political issue and should be resolved through mutual cooperation."