Iraq's vice-president has publicly denounced government charges that he led death squads since 2005 as "politically motivated", accusing authorities of coercing his bodyguards to make false confessions against him.
In a half-hour speech on Monday, Tareq al-Hashemi, who has found refuge in northern Iraq since the accusations were levelled against him, defended his innocence and called on "all honest Iraqi people" to rise up in his defence.
Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim, questioned why he was being singled out by the Shia-led government, underscoring the major sectarian tensions that have setback efforts for political unity in the country.
"The aim has become very clear: to tarnish the political picture by using lies forgery and deceit," he said in a statement broadcast from the northern city of Irbil in the autonomous Kurdish region, where authorities have refused to hand him over to Baghdad for prosecution.
Last week, a judicial panel in Baghdad concluded that Hashemi was behind at least 150 bombings and assassinations since 2005.
The conclusions followed a review of a December warrant for 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 US troops withdrew from Iraq, raising concerns among critics who called it a first sign of Nouri al-Maliki, the country's prime minister, seizing power without fear of US interference.
At the time, state TV broadcast television footage showing purported confessions by men said to be Hashemi's bodyguards.
Hashemi, who is Maliki's longtime political foe, said on Monday 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,'' he said.
He attacked the judicial panel, which was appointed by Iraq's highest court to investigate the charges.
The panel's results are not legally binding but they have been passed along to a criminal court which could choose to charge 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 Maliki.
"Our judicial system is still working to satisfy some influential people," Hashemi said.
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,'' he 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."
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|Allen L. Jasson|
|William A. Cook|