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Originally published Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 1:12 AM

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Trial to start for fugitive Iraqi VP

An Iraqi court was set to begin trying the country's fugitive Sunni vice president Thursday on accusations of terrorism that have touched off a political crisis and could deepen the nation's sectarian divide.

Associated Press

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BAGHDAD —

An Iraqi court was set to begin trying the country's fugitive Sunni vice president Thursday on accusations of terrorism that have touched off a political crisis and could deepen the nation's sectarian divide.

Tariq al-Hashemi, the nation's highest-ranking Sunni politician, was not expected to be in court to face charges that he ran death squads that targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.

The vice president is in Turkey, and has denied the charges that he calls politically motivated.

The government accuses al-Hashemi of links to about 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks. It says the death squads were largely composed of the vice president's bodyguards and other employees.

Thursday's trial was to focus on three charges: the killings of officials at the National Security and Interior ministries and the killing of a lawyer. The maximum sentence in Iraqi terror cases is the death penalty.

Journalists were not allowed to bring their phones or TV cameras inside the courtroom, and it was not clear if the opening arguments had begun by midday.

Al-Hashemi long has been a leading critic of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and was considered a confidant of American Vice President Joe Biden. Days after the U.S. military left Iraq in December, al-Maliki's government issued a warrant for al-Hashemi's arrest and detained 86 of his bodyguards for questioning.

Al-Hashemi fled to Iraq's self-ruled northern Kurdish region, which has its own security forces, and where officials have refused to hand him over to Baghdad. The vice president says he will not get a fair trial in Baghdad, and has since traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - three nations that have tense relations with al-Maliki.

After years of sectarian bloodshed, Iraqis are not overly shocked that some of their officials might have links to terrorism. But al-Hashemi's trial has been viewed with skepticism among many Sunnis and Shiites who question why the vice president was singled out.

Many are eagerly awaiting the chance to see the evidence brought against al-Hashemi. Authorities say that some bodyguards have confessed to the terror plots that targeted police officers, government officials and judges with assassination.

Al-Hashemi meanwhile says that bodyguards were tortured to extract confessions, and two died under torture - accusations that the government denies.

Al-Hashemi is a member of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political bloc, which won the most seats in the 2012 parliamentary election but was outmaneuvered in post-vote negotiations for the right to seat the new government.

Iraqiya official Abdul-Karim al-Jibouri said the trial would be a test of the independence of the country's judiciary.

"We feel that this is to bring him down politically," al-Jibouri said before the trial began. "We are with the law and we hope that the law takes its role in a neutral way."

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