BAGHDAD — Iraq’s fugitive vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, flew to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday as the goodwill generated between Iraq and its Arab neighbors by an extravagant summit in Baghdad last week began unraveling at speed.
The visit by Hashimi, who is wanted by Baghdad authorities on charges of terrorism, came as Iraqi officials announced they had called off a national reconciliation conference planned for Thursday that was supposed to ease tensions between Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sunni and Kurdish factions in his coalition government.
Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi told reporters that the meeting had been postponed indefinitely because of “mounting differences” on a range of issues, just one of which is the arrest warrant that the Shiite-led government has issued for Hashimi, a Sunni.
Hashimi’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the cancellation of the conference highlighted the danger that the increasingly intractable political crisis in Iraq will draw in the country’s neighbors at a time of increasing polarization in the region over how to address the unrest in Syria.
Maliki had agreed to hold the reconciliation conference as a last-minute concession to the Sunnis and Kurds ahead of the Baghdad summit, which the government hoped would showcase Iraq as stable, safe and assuming its rightful place in the firmament of Arab nations after the withdrawal of U.S. troops late last year.
But relations with Arab states have since been deteriorating fast, along with any hopes that Iraq will soon be able to resolve its own internal problems. On Sunday, Maliki issued a forceful defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying his ouster would destabilize the region. On the same day, at a U.S.-backed gathering of “Friends of Syria” in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia endorsed a plan to fund and equip Syrian rebels.
Maliki’s comments triggered blistering attacks in Saudi newspapers, which often reflect official thinking.
In an editorial in the Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat, editor Tariq Alhomayed called for sanctions on Maliki “to prevent the emergence of a new Saddam or another Bashar.”
“What al-Maliki is doing is a sign that the current Iraqi government cannot be trusted, under any circumstances,” he wrote.
Other Saudi dailies revived long-standing Saudi accusations that Maliki is an agent of Iran, Syria’s closest ally. “Is Maliki a voice for Iran or the ruler of Iraq?” asked the daily al-Riyadh.
Also Sunday, Hashimi flew from northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, where he had taken refuge, to Qatar, which is a staunch supporter of the Syrian uprising and which sent only a junior representative to the Baghdad summit.
Kamal al-Saedi, a senior official with Maliki’s Dawa party, told Iraq’s al-Sharqiya TV channel that by hosting Hashimi, “Qatar and Saudi Arabia are undermining the Iraqi courts.”
“Receiving a criminal is not good for diplomatic relations,” Saedi said.
The official Saudi news agency reported Wednesday that Hashimi had been met by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, high-level recognition for an official facing terrorism charges at home.
The charges against Hashimi are only one of a number of issues that have divided Iraq’s political factions since U.S. forces withdrew in December. Disputes over oil production, exports and contracts have also put Iraq’s Kurds at odds with the Maliki government.
Underpinning all the differences are Sunni and Kurdish concerns that Maliki is accumulating power for himself at their expense and in defiance of a power-sharing agreement reached in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, before the formation of the government in 2010.
The Sunnis and the Kurds want Maliki to recommit to upholding the Irbil agreement, but his State of Law alliance appears unwilling even to promise to put it on the agenda of the postponed reconciliation conference. Nujaifi, in announcing that the meeting would be delayed, indicated that relations are so tense that any gathering of leaders could be counterproductive.
“It is better to postpone the conference until we reach a way out of the standoff,” he said.