RIYADH: Fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi will return to Iraq, a close aide said Thursday, denying a claim by a Saudi official that he might remain in the kingdom until his political foe, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, leaves office.
“He will return very soon to Kurdistan,” said a member of his delegation in reference to the autonomous Iraq region where Hashemi has been sheltering since he was accused late last year of running a death squad.
The spokesman added that for Hashemi to remain abroad was “the wish of his enemies,” in a clear reference to Maliki.
Only hours earlier, Hashemi said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television that, although Maliki wants him “out of Iraq ... I will return.”
He also accused Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, of waging a systematic campaign against Sunni Arabs in Iraq.
For his part, Hashemi spokesman Medhat Abu Abdallah told AFP: “We deny this information categorically. The vice president will leave Saudi Arabia Saturday to continue his regional tour.”
The Saudi official had said Hashemi “will remain in Saudi Arabia for the time being,” adding that he might stay until Maliki is pushed out of office “by democratic means.”
He also lashed out at Maliki, describing him as “an extension of Iran in the region.”
Hashemi arrived in the Sunni heavyweight kingdom Wednesday from next-door Qatar, after a controversial four-day visit that sparked criticism from Iraq’s Shiite-led government and demands that Doha hand him over.
Qatar rejected those demands, saying they violated “diplomatic norms.”
In Riyadh, Hashemi met the kingdom’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Hashemi fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region in December to avoid formal charges and arrest.
He told Al-Jazeera the accusations against him “have a sectarian dimension” that are part of what he said was a systematic campaign against Sunnis.
He said he was the “fifth Sunni figure to be targeted” by the government, and that “more than 90 percent of the detainees in Iraq are Sunnis.”
Hashemi added that the government was providing “military assistance” to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, arguing that Maliki’s support for Syria’s leadership, which he has previously accused of funding terrorism, is motivated by sectarian considerations.
“There is information about Iraqi militias fighting alongside the Syrian regime,” Hashemi told Al-Jazeera. There are also “unconfirmed reports that Iraq’s airspace is being used to help [Assad’s] regime,” he added, hinting at Iranian involvement.
Maliki has rejected attempts by Sunni-led Gulf Arab states to arm rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, arguing that such a move would trigger an even bigger crisis in the region.
The Syrian issue has split the Arab world. Hard-line states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have advocated arming Syrian rebels and called for Assad’s departure. Others, including Iraq, want to see a political solution.
Syria’s minority rulers are Alawites – an offshoot of Shiite Islam – who are trying to cling to power by brutally suppressing anti-regime protests led by the country’s majority Sunnis.