BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's embattled Sunni vice president on Monday slammed government charges that he ran death squads as politically motivated and called on "all honest Iraqi people" to rise up in his defense.
In a half-hour speech, Tariq al-Hashemi vigorously defended himself against charges that he said were based on coerced statements. He also questioned why he was being singled out by the Shiite-led government, noting that many insurgents and militias are still free after killing thousands of people in the years Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war.
His comments starkly underscored the divisive sectarian tensions the case has injected into Baghdad's already turbulent political system.
The charges "are politically motivated," al-Hashemi said in the speech broadcast from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, where he has sought haven from arrest in the autonomous Kurdish region. "The aim has become very clear: to tarnish the political picture by using lies, forgery and deceit."
"I have no suspicious activities," he said. "This is the truth and anything other than that is false."
Two government spokesmen could not be reached for immediate comment.
Last week, a judicial panel in Baghdad concluded that al-Hashemi was behind at least 150 bombings and assassinations since 2005. The conclusions stemmed from a review of a December warrant for al-Hashemi's arrest accusing him of paying his bodyguards $3,000 to kill security forces and government officials.
The warrant was announced the day after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, raising eyebrows among critics who called it a first sign of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seizing power without fear of American interference. At the time, state TV broadcast television footage showing purported confessions by men said to be al-Hashemi's bodyguards.
On Monday, al-Hashemi said his bodyguards were tortured into giving the confessions, and still have been unable to see lawyers in the case. "We have pictures of bruises on their faces and bodies," al-Hashemi said.
He lashed out at the judicial panel, which was appointed by Iraq's highest court to investigate the charges. The panel's results aren't legally binding but they have been passed along to a criminal court which could choose to charge al-Hashemi with even more crimes. The panel touted its findings as the first independent review of al-Hashemi's case, but critics and some experts said its judges were named by officials sympathetic to al-Maliki.
"Our judicial system is still working to satisfy some influential people," said al-Hashemi, who is al-Maliki's longtime political foe.
Al-Hashemi also called on Iraqis to stand behind him and reject the charges, although he did not specifically call for demonstrations or other specific displays of support.
"The issue of al-Hashemi is the issue of every citizen who does not tolerate humiliation and who rejects oppression," the vice president said. "Confronting the conspiracy against al-Hashemi and defending him has become an obligation and a duty that must be carried out by all honest Iraqi people hoping for a country clear of injustice and corruption."
Associated Press Writers Bushra Juhi, Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.