BAGHDAD (The Blaze/AP) -- Iraq's Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant Monday for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's highest ranking Sunni official and an outspoken critic of the prime minister, on terrorism charges.
The move, a day after the last American troops left Iraq and ended the nearly nine-year U.S. war, signaled a sharp new escalation in sectarian tensions that drove Iraq to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
Interior Ministry spokesman Adil Daham told reporters about the warrant and state-run television aired what it characterized as confessions by alleged terrorists held by the Interior Ministry who were said to be linked to al-Hashemi. They claimed they received orders from him to attack government officials and police officers.
"An arrest warrant has been issued against Vice President al-Hashemi under the terrorism law and five judges have signed this warrant," said Daham as he waved a copy of the order. On Sunday, judges investigating al-Hashemi's bodyguards over the alleged attacks banned the vice president from traveling outside of Iraq.
Al-Hashemi and Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are old rivals, and the arrest order appears to be politically motivated.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath party regime, the Sunni minority has constantly complained of attempts by the Shiite majority to sideline them.
Al-Hashemi is one of the leaders of the Sunni-backed political bloc Iraqiya, suspended its participation in parliament on Saturday to protest the control of key posts by al-Maliki.
The boycott by Iraqiya, headed by Ayad Allawi, was in response to the government's failure to share more powers, particularly the authorities that control security forces, said Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of the bloc.
Iraqiya narrowly won the most seats in last year's parliamentary election, but Allawi was outmaneuvered by al-Maliki, who kept the premier's post after cobbling together key support from other Shiite parties.
For more than a year now, al-Maliki has effectively controlled the Interior and Defense Ministries, which oversee the police and military, while conflicts between Sunni and Shiite politicians have delayed the appointment of permanent ministers.
The crisis is a reminder that the U.S. left behind an Iraq still riven by sectarian division. The United States completed its withdrawal from the country early Sunday, with the last troops crossing the border into neighboring Kuwait.
Al-Mutlaq warned that Iraqiya could take a further step if its demands are not met - pulling its seven ministers out of al-Maliki's coalition government.
In a statement issued Saturday, Iraiqiya criticized the "unjustified" random arrests conducted by the government's security forces against Sunni areas.