In 2007, TIME magazine reported how Sultan Hashim Ahmad Al-Ta’i, the defense minister during Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s era, escaped execution just five hours before he was scheduled to be hanged. Ta’i’s life was spared after his American jailor refused to hand him over to Iraqi executioners due to “incomplete paperwork.” Hashim’s controversial case—he is still in jail—continues to demonstrate the state of political and sectarian tensions in Iraq.
Recently there have been reports about Prime Minister-designate Haider Al-Abadi’s intent to release Ta’i along with foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister during Saddam’s rule, Tariq Aziz, within the context of comprehensive political reconciliation in the country. This amnesty would mark the end of the era of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is blamed for the fallout which almost destroyed the state and sparked a civil war.
TIME reported that former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and his deputy Tareq Al-Hashemi were against executing public figures and leaders and warned the US against submitting to Maliki’s demands. Unfortunately when the Americans left Iraq, they handed the country to Maliki without any restraints whatsoever. As a result, Maliki exploited his powers. This is definitely part of the reason for the growing anger against presidential, security and judicial state institutions. During his eight years in power, Maliki targeted his rivals on sectarian, ethnic and partisan grounds without taking into consideration the country’s sensitivities and without respect for the the rule of law.
One of Maliki’s acquaintances told me that the outgoing prime minister thought it would be easy to adopt the approach of former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. Khomeini had one project, which was to eradicate all parties who disagreed with him from the political scene. Tehran’s revolutionaries killed thousands of people through kangaroo courts—not only the Shah’s followers, but also their leftist and nationalist partners.
However, Iraq has been a country with a complex ethnic and confessional mix for centuries. Even when Britain colonized Iraq, it did not ignore the country’s tribal, sectarian and regional differences. This is what enabled Britain to control Iraq between the two world wars.
Ta’i was a military figure who received orders during Saddam’s dictatorship. Other than that, many, including his enemies, testified in his favor, saying he was a respected figure. This is what US general David Petraeus, who detained him in 2003, wrote about him when he called for his execution not to go ahead, saying that Ta’i voluntarily handed himself over. More than one source confirmed that Ta’i chose not to confront the invasion when it first began in 2003 because he thought it was a lost war. This decision was against the orders of Saddam, and was why losses on both sides during the invasion were less than the preliminary estimates of experts.
As for Aziz, Maliki received plenty of letters from across the world calling for mercy to be shown him and for his release, especially as he was sick. However, Maliki chose to keep him in jail, realizing that executing him would spark global condemnation and protest.
If the Sunni Ta’i and the Christian Aziz were to be released, there would be a real chance to begin the work of political reconciliation. It would send significant messages—for instance, that Abadi’s government was serious about moving to a new phase, exiting Maliki’s era. There is a list of demands that though many, are reasonable, just and achievable. Some of these demands are aimed at ending acts of vendetta and entering a new phase which would preserve the country’s unity and power.