By Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The violence in Iraq is part of a broader Sunni Arab revolt that could lead to a holy war in the country, And is not just a rampage by Islamist militants from an al Qaeda splinter group, fugitive vice president Tarek al-Hashemi told Reuters on Monday.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian war. "What happened in my country ... is desperate people revolted. Simple as that. Arab Sunni communities over 11 years faced discrimination, injustice, corruption," Hashemi said, rejecting the suggestion that militants from ISIL, also known as ISIS, alone were responsible.
"We do have about 11 to 12 armed groups, and they are being reactivated now. And we do also have political parties involved, we have ex-army officers, we have tribes, we have independent people in fact," he said in an interview in Istanbul. Hashemi, a Sunni sentenced to death in 2012 after an Iraqi court convicted him of running death squads while vice president, something he denies, has long accused Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of a witch-hunt against his Sunni opponents.
"We have many groups beside ISIS. I am not going to deny that ISIS are existing, that ISIS are not influential. No, they are influential, very strong, could be a vanguard even in the whole operation in Mosul and other provinces, but they are not representing the whole spectrum of the groups," Hashemi said.
He warned the situation could descend into a full-blown religious war and said Iraq's most senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had fanned the flames when he called at Friday prayers for his followers to take up arms.
"If we leave things developing on the ground there will be a possibility for wide-scale sectarian warfare," said Hashemi, who divides his time between the Gulf Arab state of Qatar and Turkey.
"The fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Sistani just put more fuel on the fire. There will be a reaction from the Arab Sunni communities and at the end of the day we are expecting a holy war between Muslim people, Shi'a and Sunnis," he said.
"We have to stop that, we should try our best to stop the bloodshed. This is the responsibility of everybody and on top of them, the United Nations," he said, calling for Maliki to resign and for the international community to intervene.
Like Hashemi, critics of Maliki say he has gained undue control over the army, police and security services, using them freely against Sunni Muslim and other political foes, while allowing grave abuses in prisons and detention centres.
Maliki has said in the past that his fight is with al Qaeda, not with Sunni Muslims as a community. He lists an end to sectarianism and militias among his core principles.
Hashemi said Maliki's leadership and the international community's abandonment of Iraq had fuelled the extremists' rise. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in late 2011, nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
"We are not generating ISIS, we are not generating al Qaeda ... They just left things on the ground, and because of the injustice, they pushed our youngest sons to be more extreme," Hashemi said.
"We kept warning the international community but everybody kept his eyes blind to what’s going on in Iraq. And all of a sudden, 'why has this happened in Mosul, why this happened in Salahaddin?' You should blame yourself," he said.
(Reporting by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood)