DOHA (Reuters) - Iraq's fugitive vice president warned that an armed stand-off in Anbar province could spread to other parts of the country as Sunni Muslim opposition to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki grows.
Stirred by a bloody raid to arrest a Sunni politician in the Anbar city of Ramadi, fighters of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and tribal allies took over Falluja and parts of nearby Ramadi three weeks ago at a time of rising Sunni anger with the Shi'ite-led government.
Tarek al-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 accused Maliki of pursuing a political witch-hunt against his Sunni opponents.
"I'm not optimistic about the future... I think this spark in Anbar will spread to other provinces," Hashemi told Reuters in an interview this week in his Doha office guarded by Qatari security men.
"Maliki is targeting Arab Sunnis in different provinces, with the use of army forces, or handing them death sentences in a way that has never been seen before in Iraq's modern history, and therefore it's the right of these individuals to defend themselves in every way possible."
On Sunday, Iraqi government forces battling ISIL militants intensified air strikes and artillery fire on Falluja. The confrontation has displaced tens of thousands of residents.
Many in Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority, the main community in Anbar, share ISIL's enmity toward the Shi'ite Muslim-dominated government. But some tribal leaders in Anbar, a vast western province that borders civil war-wracked Syria, have been trying to steer a middle course between the two.
Iraq's U.S.-equipped armed forces have killed dozens of militants in recent days in shelling and air strikes, officials say. The scale of casualties among civilians, the security forces and tribal fighters is not yet clear.
ISIL has sought to extend its control into neighbouring areas, creating two desert entities that it refers to as "wilayah" (governed area). One is called the State of North al-Jazeera, outside the northern city of Mosul, and the other the State of South al-Jazeera, in the Anbar desert.
Hashemi, who divides his time between the Gulf Arab state of Qatar and Turkey, appealed to outside countries for humanitarian aid to "support the victims".
He said it would be "disastrous" if Maliki, in power since 2006, could win a third term if voters choose him in a parliamentary elections set for April 30.
"Today, we are objecting to Maliki not because he's Shi'ite. It's because of his flawed policy," said Hashemi.
"Maliki ... controls political decisions and the power to implement them and he also controls the judiciary system, stripping it of independence."
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 centers.
In the latest high-profile raid, security forces detained prominent Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Alwani, a supporter of anti-government protests and a strong critic of Maliki, at his Anbar home last month, sparking the latest violence.
Maliki says his Anbar fight is with al Qaeda, not with Sunni Muslims as a community. He lists an end to sectarianism and militias among his core principles.
The political struggle between Maliki and Sunni rivals in Iraq's delicate power-sharing deal intensified during the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in late 2011, nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Hashemi said he longed to return to his homeland but did not feel safe to go back at this point. "There isn't a single square metre in any (Sunni) governorate that's safe for me to return to," he said.
(Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Mark Heinrich)