Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered authorities in semi-independent Kurdistan province to hand over Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is wanted on charges of plotting terrorist attacks.

Speaking at a televised press conference Wednesday, Maliki warned Kurds there would be "problems" if they failed to turn over Hashimi, reported the New York Times. The vice president has taken refuge in the regional capital, Irbil, since a warrant for his arrest was issued Monday.

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It was the first time Maliki had spoken in public since then, the Times said, and he appeared to be in defiant mood:

"We demand the Kurdistan region hand [Hashimi] over, and to bear the responsiblity and do their duty. If he escapes, this will create problems."

The prime minister also threatened to replace members of Hashimi's Iraqiya bloc in government if they do not lift their current boycott of parliament and the cabinet. If the dispute cannot be resolved, Maliki said he would "move toward forming a majority government," presumably without his coalition partners.

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According to Reuters, Maliki had earlier invited Iraqiya and other political blocs to meet with him, the president and vice-presidents to discuss the matter. Such a meeting would have brought leaders from the Shia majority together with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, Reuters said, "the kind of dialogue which US officials have been urging Maliki to pursue in order to calm passions provoked by the arrest warrant."

However, Iraqiya rejected the offer Wednesday, saying Maliki could not broker a solution since "he represents the main reason for the crisis."

Hashimi denies the charges against him, which he says are politically motivated. Expressing concern that he would not be given a fair hearing, he has asked to be tried in Kurdistan and called for the Arab League to oversee the investigation.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent Jim Muir said the Kurds would have a key role to play in any resolution of the dispute:

"Among the Iraqis, the Kurds alone can mediate between the country's feuding Sunni and Shia Arab leaders. They are bound to renew that key role in the coming days of intense efforts to revive —or perhaps revise—the national entente formula."

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