April 4, 2012 / 3:06 PM / 7 years ago

Fugitive Iraqi vice president on Saudi pilgrimage

File photo of Iraq's Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi at a news conference in Arbil, December 20, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

RIYADH (Reuters) - Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, whom Iraqi authorities want to try on charges he ran death squads, arrived in Saudi Arabia from Qatar on Wednesday to perform the Umrah pilgrimage, a Saudi government official said.

Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim, fled Baghdad in December for Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region after the Shi’ite-led central government issued a warrant for his arrest, inflaming sectarian tensions.

His arrival in Qatar on Sunday, as part of what his office described as a regional tour, prompted Iraq to demand the Gulf Arab state “return him to Iraq to be tried”.

However, his arrival in Saudi Arabia as a pilgrim may be seen as less inflammatory in Baghdad than his visit to Qatar, which was made in the guise of a visiting political leader.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have voiced concern for Sunni interests in Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

Saudi Arabia views the Iraqi government as being a close ally of the kingdom’s arch-regional rival, Shi’ite Iran.

In a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin was quoted as saying King Abdullah saw Maliki as “an Iranian 100 percent”.

Saudi Arabia last month appointed an ambassador to Iraq for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, prompting speculation about a cautious rapprochement.

However, the envoy will be based in Jordan, not Baghdad, for security reasons. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Qatar sent senior officials to last month’s Arab summit in Iraq,

Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Alistair Lyon

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