Iraqi leader opposes hanging
President urges compassion for Hussein figure
BAGHDAD — Iraq’s president declared yesterday that he will not sign off on the hanging of Tariq Aziz, joining the Vatican and others in objecting to the death sentence for a man who for years was the international face of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
President Jalal Talabani’s statement sets up a showdown between those seeking maximum punishment for key figures of the ousted regime and groups calling for reconciliation after years of fierce sectarian conflict following the 2003 US-led invasion.
“I feel compassion for Tariq Aziz because he is a Christian, an Iraqi Christian,’’ Talabani, a Kurd, told France’s 24 TV. “In addition, he is an elderly man — aged over 70 — and this is why I will never sign this order.’’
But Talabani’s opposition does not necessarily mean Aziz, 74, will escape the noose. Aziz was sentenced in October for his alleged role in a campaign of persecuting, killing, and torturing members of Shi’ite opposition and religious parties that now dominate Iraq.
The Iraqi constitution says death sentences must be ratified by the president before they can be carried out. But there are mechanisms to bypass the president — such as an act of Parliament or the approval of one of Talabani’s deputies.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said that death penalties can be carried out regardless of the president’s refusal to sign an execution order.
“If the president refuses to sign an execution, that is not a veto on a verdict,’’ Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, said.
Although Talabani says the death penalty violates his socialist principles, many convicted criminals and members of the former regime — including Hussein himself — have been executed during his presidency.
Talabani has tried to block only one proposed execution, that of Hussein’s defense minister, Sultan Hashim al-Taie, a popular figure among the country’s Sunni minority. Al-Taie, who was sentenced to death three years ago, is still alive.
It is unclear whether Talabani will follow up his comments yesterday with a vigorous campaign to save Aziz’s life.
The decision to prosecute and execute members of Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Ba’athist regime was popular among majority Shi’ites, who now control the government. The regime sent hundreds of thousands of opponents to death or exile, and many Shi’ites want vengeance.
“I support Aziz’s execution as any other criminal’s whose hands are stained with the Iraqi people’s blood,’’ said Zaid Ghalib, a shop owner in Baghdad’s Shi’ite slum of Sadr City.
But although Aziz is Christian and not Sunni, many Sunnis view his conviction and those of other former regime members as proof that they will forever be held responsible for actions carried out years ago.
“The ignorant people running this government came [to power] for revenge only,’’ said Hussam Ahmed, a resident of Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni district of Azamiyah.
Aziz’s family has argued that he was not responsible for the crimes for which he is accused but is being persecuted simply because he was a member of Hussein’s regime.
“I want to reassert that my father’s execution sentence was a political decision; therefore, it’s null and void,’’ said Aziz’s son, Ziad, speaking from neighboring Jordan.
The Vatican expressed “great satisfaction’’ with Talabani’s comments, calling his position a step forward for human rights.
Hakim al-Zamili, a recently elected member of Parliament from a bloc led by anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, questioned whether Aziz’s Christianity made him a more sympathetic figure in the West.
Zamili noted that the Vatican and Western leaders have lobbied to spare Aziz’s life, while other death sentences are being carried out with little fanfare. Islamic militants have been increasingly targeting Iraq’s Christian minority; an Oct. 31 attack on a Sunday Mass left 68 people dead at a Baghdad church.
Aziz was the highest-ranking Christian in Hussein’s inner circle. He became internationally known as the dictator’s defender and a fierce American critic as foreign minister after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and later as a deputy prime minister who frequently traveled abroad on diplomatic missions.