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Fugitive Iraqi VP denounces death sentence as 'politically motivated'

ANKARA, Turkey -- Fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on Monday denounced a death sentence against him as politically motivated and issued by a "kangaroo court." He said he would not return to Iraq from Turkey within 30 days as demanded.

The politically-charged case sparked a crisis in Iraq's government and has fueled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who critics say is monopolizing power.

"Yesterday Prime Minister Maliki and his ... judiciary concluded the final phase of the theatrical campaign against me using a kangaroo court set up for this purpose. It was really a shambles," Hashemi told a news conference in the Turkish capital Ankara.

"Therefore, while reconfirming my and my guards' absolute innocence, I totally reject and will never recognize the unfair, the unjust, the politically motivated verdict," he said.

Sectarian divide
Al-Hashemi, a Sunni, had accused al-Maliki's government of controlling the judiciary and of orchestrating a crackdown on Sunni opponents. He had refused to appear in a court he dismissed as biased.

Al-Hashemi and his son-in-law were both found guilty in absentia of murdering a female lawyer and security official, Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, a judiciary spokesman said.

The trial, which began last spring, featured testimony from the vice president's former bodyguards, who said they were ordered, and then paid, to launch the attacks. Government forces who found weapons when they raided al-Hashemi's house and that of his son-in-law also testified in the case, as did relatives of the victims.

Iraq's government has accused al-Hashemi of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011 -- most of which were allegedly carried out by his bodyguards and other employees. Most of the attacks the government claims al-Hashemi was behind targeted the vice president's political foes, as well as government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.

The charges against the vice president span the worst years of bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when sectarian attacks between Sunni and Shiite militants pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

Death toll in Iraq tops 100 as fugitive VP gets death sentence

Al-Hashemi has claimed that his bodyguards were likely tortured or otherwise coerced into testifying against him.

"This is a political decision. All our respect to the Iraqi judicial system, but this was political," said lawmaker Jaber al-Jaberi, a member of Hashemi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya party.

Strengthening al-Maliki's hand
Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo said the verdict against al-Hashemi will help the embattled prime minster.

"With this verdict al-Maliki will be stronger as it will strengthen his hands," Jalo said. "The verdict, the most important since the trial of the Saddam Hussein who was hanged in 2006 with al-Maliki in office, will serve as a message to all that the government will not tolerate" misdeeds, he said.

Dozens of people were killed in Iraq following a series of attacks in cities across the country. There have been more than 20 explosions mostly targeted at security forces, leaving many dead, as Annabel Roberts reports.

Hours before the sentence was announced on Sunday, a wave of bombings and shootings had already killed dozens of people and a car bomb had exploded outside a French consular office in Nassiriya in southern Iraq.

Related: US auditors say $200m wasted on Iraqi police training

Since the last U.S. troops left, al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has been politically deadlocked and insurgents have continued to strike, apparently hoping to ignite the kind of sectarian tensions that drove Iraq close to civil war in 2006-2007.

After the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and the rise to power of Iraq's Shiite majority, many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been sidelined.

Sunni politicians say al-Maliki is failing to live up to agreements to share power among the parties, a charge his backers dismiss, pointing to Sunnis in key posts.

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When the al-Hashemi charges were announced, his Iraqiya party attempted a short-lived boycott of parliament and the Cabinet. But the party has since splintered further, strengthening the political hand of al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition.

Heightened political tension is often accompanied by a surge in violence as Sunni Islamist insurgents try to capitalize on instability to strike at the government, local security forces and Shiite religious targets.

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Major coordinated attacks continue
Violence in Iraq has eased since the dark days of sectarian slaughter that erupted after the 2003 invasion. But insurgents are still carrying out at least one major coordinated attack a month.

Infighting in the religiously mixed government, and a resurgence of a local al-Qaida wing, are raising fears of a return to wider violence, especially as Iraq is struggling to contain spillover from Syria's crisis over the border.

'Emergency red list' targets Syria's looted treasures

Iraq's local al-Qaida affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq, has claimed responsibility for major attacks on security forces and Shiite neighborhoods. Former members of Saddam's outlawed Baathist party and other Sunni Islamist groups are also fighting the government.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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