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Iraqi PM demands wanted Sunni boss

Iraq's prime minister has urged Kurds in the north of the country to hand over the country's Sunni vice president wanted on an arrest warrant accused of running hit squads that targeted government officials.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's remarks during a news conference sharpened the divisions in what is becoming one of the most serious political confrontations in Iraq in years.

The warrant against Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni political figure, came just one day after US troops pulled out of Iraq.

"I do not allow myself and others to bargain over Iraqi blood," Mr al-Maliki said.

He said Iraq was a unified county and the Kurdish authorities should hand over Mr al-Hashemi to the Iraqi justice system. "If they will not hand him over or let him flee or escape, this will lead to problems," the premier said.

Mr al-Hashemi has denied charges that he paid his bodyguards to kill government officials during the heyday of Iraq's insurgency. He left for the Kurdish region on Sunday, before the arrest warrant was announced and before purported confessions from his bodyguards were aired on Iraqi television.

The three provinces that make up the Kurdish region are part of Iraq, but the Kurds have their own security forces and Iraqi Army and national police do not operate there.

The charges against a high-profile Sunni official by the Shiite-led government have thrown Iraq into crisis just days after US troops left the country. Mr al-Hashemi described the case against him as "fabricated" to embarrass him and his political party, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya.

The fact that he is Sunni and the crimes he is accused of are old, have led to questions about whether the case is politically motivated by the Shiite-led government in order to keep the Sunni community out of power.

Many Sunnis feel the Shiite-led government is overly aligned with neighbouring Iran and determined to keep Sunnis, who once dominated the country under Saddam Hussein, from ever regaining positions of power.

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