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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Iraq war may be over for the U.S. military but may not be for the Iraqis or for the U.S. government as it tries to avert sectarian strife after the departure of American troops.
U.S. officials are on edge because of the Iraqi government's decision to issue an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni politician.
The announcement of the arrest warrant on Monday, one day after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal, has revived fears that sectarian tensions between Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities may erupt anew.
The timing is hardly convenient for U.S. President Barack Obama as he has sought in a series of appearances to mark the end of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq nearly nine years after the invasion ordered by former President George W. Bush.
In the latest such event, Obama took part in a ceremony on Tuesday at a military base near Washington at which the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq was formally returned home.
Obama's Republican opponents in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have argued the decision to bring all U.S. troops home by the end of this year - a date originally set by Bush - had aggravated the chances of instability in Iraq.
Politics aside, the stark revival of sectarian tensions at the highest level of Iraqi politics poses a fresh challenge for U.S. policymakers in a strategic oil-rich country.
"One of the concerns that people have had for some time is that without a large U.S. presence, the likelihood of sectarian score-settling in Iraq would increase," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Alterman said he did not know how much evidence there may be to support the arrest warrant against Hashemi, who has been accused of suspected ties to assassinations and bombings.
The Iraqi interior ministry showed taped confessions of men it claimed were members of Hashemi's security detail and who said they were paid by his office to carry out killings.
But one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the allegations against Hashemi were totally unfounded.
"Whether this represents sectarian score-settling or straight-forward criminal investigation is not clear at all," Alterman said.
"The danger is that a straight-forward investigation would be perceived as score-settling and hurtle the country toward deep spasms of violence abetted by external parties with ties to the different sectarian communities," he added, alluding to neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The White House called on the Iraqi government to handle the matter in line with international norms, an appeal that appeared to reflect unspoken concerns the Hashemi case could be politically motivated or conducted in a less than impartial way.
U.S. Vice President Biden spoke by telephone with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi to discuss the matter, saying the United States was monitoring events closely.
"He emphasized the United States' commitment to a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq, our support for an inclusive partnership government and the importance of acting in a manner consistent with the rule of law and Iraq's constitution," Biden's office said in a brief statement.
"The Vice President also stressed the urgent need for the Prime Minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together," it added.
"We're obviously concerned about this," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier, noting U.S. officials had been in touch with Iraqi leaders.
The arrest warrant threatens Iraq's fragile power-sharing deal among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs who have struggled to overcome tensions just a few years after sectarian violence pushed the nation virtually into civil war.
"I am skeptical of the allegations," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst who specializes in national security and defense policy, stressing he did not have detailed information on which to base a judgment.
O'Hanlon said he saw a significant danger that sectarian strife could erupt if Hashemi's eventual prosecution were perceived to be politically motivated, as seems likely.
"I think there is a great risk, especially because the prime minister has tried to use the courts before to serve his own agenda, for example trying to get candidates disqualified two years ago before the parliamentary elections," he said.
Obama's political opponents this week renewed criticism of the troop withdrawal, which the president ordered after negotiations failed with the Iraqi government on a follow-on U.S. force of several thousand troops.
"The risk of increasing sectarian violence following the president's decision to withdraw all U.S. forces has always been real, which is one of the reasons our commanders recommended a credible force remain in Iraq after the end of the year," said a spokesman for House of Representatives Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican.
"But in the end the Iraqis will have to want security and liberty for all of their citizens as much as we do, and shape their own destiny," said the spokesman, Claude Chafin.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull, Laura MacInnis and Anna Yukhananov; Editing by John O'Callaghan