Dubai: Fugitive Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi has travelled to Qatar on what the Gulf nation`s state news agency called an "official visit". The trip could deepen tensions between Baghdad`s Shiite-led government and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf.
The Sunday visit marks al-Hashemi`s first foreign trip since he fled to Iraq`s semiautonomous Kurdish region to avoid an arrest warrant issued in December.
Al-Hashemi is Iraq`s highest-ranking Sunni official. Iraqi officials accuse him of running death squads against Shiite pilgrims, government officials and security forces. He denies the charges, which he says are politically motivated.
Qatar protested Baghdad`s treatment of Iraq`s Sunni minority by sending a midlevel official to an Arab League summit hosted by Iraq last week. Other Sunni-led Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also snubbed Iraq by sending lower-level officials.
The Gulf states are wary of the close ties Iraq`s government has forged with regional Shiite powerhouse Iran, whom they see as a rival.
Iraq`s Interior Ministry last month demanded that Kurdish leaders arrest al-Hashemi before he could flee the country. The semiautonomous Kurdish region has its own security forces, which means al-Hashemi was effectively out of reach from police controlled by the central government in Baghdad.
Al-Hashemi will stay for several days, the government-run Qatar News Agency said. He was greeted on arrival by the minister of state, Sheik Hamad bin Nasser bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of Qatar`s ruling family.
While there was no immediate response from Iraq`s government, the high-level treatment is likely to irk authorities in Baghdad.
Earlier in the day, before news of al-Hashemi`s trip emerged, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned other Arab states against affording him an official welcome.
"They must know that the accused is wanted by a country which is a member of the Arab league ... so he is not supposed to be received as a vice-president, which is a violation of the nature of the international relations," he said.
Al-Hashemi`s office said he plans to meet with Qatar`s emir and the prime minister during the visit. The statement said he plans to visit additional unnamed countries during the trip before returning to Iraq`s Kurdish region.