Tariq al-Hashemi says he cringes when he's described as Iraq's Sunni vice president.
Mr. Hashemi, one of two vice presidents – the other, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, is Shiite – says he is trying to reach out to all Iraqis. In September, he met for the first time with Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at his home in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. He also drafted an Iraqi National Compact – his 25-point plan to lessen sectarian and ethnic strife.
At the same time, he remains utterly at odds with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Indeed, the standoff between the two men underscores the fact that Iraq's political leaders have not capitalized on improved security to advance what US officials here have labeled "top-down reconciliation."
Hashemi points to several grievances. Sunni Arabs, he says, have been unfairly targeted, imprisoned, and tortured. He faults Mr. Maliki's handling of the crisis with Turkey over Kurdish rebels in Iraq's north, noting that a government official told the Turks there were enough Iraqi soldiers to pursue the rebels just after Hashemi had told the Turks the opposite.
Last week, meanwhile, Maliki endorsed the resignation of six cabinet ministers from Hashemi's Sunni political alliance, the Iraqi Accordance Front, who have been boycotting the government since June. That paved the way for their replacement, though the bloc's members remain in parliament.
"The obstacle toward reconciliation today and toward many laws, including the oil and gas, is fear among Iraqis," says Hashemi, referring to the long-stalled proposed law to equitably divide the country's oil riches.
That law remains in limbo, along with numerous other benchmarks devised by Washington earlier this year to measure the Iraqi government's progress.
"What you have in Iraq now are mutual fears. Whenever we sit at the negotiating table, the Shiite is afraid of the Sunni, and the Sunni fears the Shiite, and the Kurd fears the Turkmen, and so on," adds Hashemi, who spoke with the Monitor at his office inside the tightly secured International Zone (formerly the Green Zone).
Behind his desk hang framed verses of the Koran, rendered in calligraphy. On another wall is a photo-mosaic of him, composed of miniature photos of Sunni Arab victims of sectarian killing.
Talk to former Army officers
Hashemi warns that it will be a serious blow to any hopes for reconciliation if the government carries out the death sentence, handed down by a special tribunal and upheld by an appeals court in September, against Sultan Hashem, the former defense minister during Saddam Hussein's regime, and former Army chief Hussein Rashid Muhammad, as well as Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid.
They were convicted of genocide for their roles in a 1988 campaign against Iraq's Kurds, in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Hashemi says Mr. Hashem and Mr. Muhammad, both Sunnis, were merely military officers carrying out the orders of the political leadership. "This will ruin the Iraqi military establishment forever because this is an invitation to all military officers to question in the future the orders of politicians," he argues.
"A dialogue is taking place with former Army officers in Jordan and Syria to return," he continues. "His [Hashem's] execution is a message to them not to come back and that's it – we burn all bridges."
On Monday, the US military refused to hand over the three men to the Maliki government for hanging until, it said, authorities resolved their legal and procedural differences.
Hashemi insists the presidency council, of which he is part, has the final say in signing death sentence decrees as spelled out by the Constitution, while Maliki says this does not apply to special tribunals.
"We did not write the Constitution; they wrote it – and now they are contravening it," Hashemi says.
Hashemi, who lost three of his siblings to targeted assassinations last year, gets very emotional when he speaks about the plight of prisoners, particularly those held in Iraqi facilities.
He accuses the Maliki government of paying people it calls "secret informants" to fabricate evidence and reports used to round up hundreds of Sunni Arabs throughout Iraq this year on the pretense of being linked to Al Qaeda and the insurgency.
He charges that the government runs secret detention facilities and refuses to disclose the number of prisoners it holds.
In defiance of strong criticism from Maliki, Hashemi has continued his public campaign, calling for the release of all prisoners. TV crews accompany him as he visits Iraqi prisons. He speaks of overcrowding, rampant disease, and cases of children being held with their mothers. He says that many prisoners being held for months have not even undergone preliminary interrogation, let alone been officially charged.
A judicial system in peril
"I am convinced now that the judicial system in Iraq is in a pathetic state," he says, adding that the only way to push reconciliation forward and prove to Sunni Arabs once and for all that the Shiite-led government is not out to get them is to announce a sweeping amnesty to all prisoners.
Last week, the US military released 500 prisoners from facilities it runs, which are strained to the limit and now hold nearly 26,000 detainees – most of them arrested this year as part of the drive to secure Baghdad and surrounding provinces.
In a press conference on Sunday, Maliki took credit for the plunge in violence and sectarian killings over the past two months and said he was considering an amnesty to some of those held in Iraqi-run prisons.
One point in Hashemi's national compact says that "true national reconciliation must embody the principle of letting bygones be bygones and must embrace everyone, including those [insurgents] who put down their weapons and declare their support for a free, democratic, federal, and diverse Iraq."
Humam Hamoudi, a senior parliamentarian from Maliki's Shiite bloc, welcomes Hashemi's compact as a "step forward," but says that his vision for reconciliation may be "premature."
"Under current conditions, it's not suitable; we need more time for coexistence and restoration of trust," he says.
Critics: Hashemi close to Sunni states
Many Shiite politicians and average Shiites accuse Hashemi and his Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) of receiving funds from regional Sunni Arab-led states like Saudi Arabia to undermine the Maliki government.
They say the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs in the region have yet to reconcile themselves to an Iraq where Shiites play a pivotal role at the top.
Hashemi laughs at the charges and says his meeting in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah in October was simply an invitation for iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
Emboldened by the recent security gains, many in Maliki's camp believe it's time to start looking for government partners among other Sunni Arabs in Iraq, particularly the tribes in western Anbar Province who stood up against Al Qaeda with US support.
The IIP, which seeks to reinforce the role of "moderate" Islam in society, has nearly 435 offices throughout Iraq and continues to enjoy support among Sunnis. It also maintains contact with several factions of the insurgency.