BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki was concerned that if Saddam Hussein was not hanged quickly he would somehow avoid the gallows, a senior U.S. official in Baghdad was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
The official told The New York Times that Maliki, who rushed to execute Saddam four days after an appeal on his death sentence on crimes against humanity failed, was worried insurgents would stage a mass kidnapping and use it as a bargaining chip to secure the release of the former president.
“His concern was security, and that … maybe there would be a mass kidnapping to bargain for Saddam Hussein’s release,” the official said.
“He was concerned that he might somehow get free.”
After ousting Saddam in a U.S. invasion in 2003, American troops had kept physical custody of the former president in a high-security prison near Baghdad airport. He was handed over to Iraqi officials before the execution at dawn on Saturday.
A U.S. embassy official declined to comment.
As outrage among Saddam’s Sunni Arab loyalists grew over illicitly filmed footage of Shi’ite officials taunting him on the gallows, the government said it had set up a special committee to investigate the abusive behavior of the witnesses.
A court official said he nearly halted the hanging over the jeering, which has embarrassed moderate Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds in Maliki’s coalition government and inflamed sectarian passions in a nation already on the brink of civil war.
Thousands of Saddam’s fellow Sunni Arabs have marched to vent anger at the execution in Sunni Arab strongholds.
In the video, widely seen on the Internet, observers chant the name of Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr as Saddam stands on the scaffold, appearing dignified in contrast to the uproar below him.
Prosecutor Munkith al-Faroon, heard appealing for order on the video, told Reuters on Tuesday he had threatened to leave the room if the jeering did not stop. That would have halted the execution as a prosecution observer must be present by law.
He also challenged government claims those who filmed the event were guards, saying they were senior officials.
On Wednesday, Faroon denied having identified one of the officials who filmed the execution as National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.
“I know the officials who were filming the hanging only by sight. I don’t know their names but it was not Rubaie.”
Contacted by Reuters, Rubaie denied filming the hanging.
“I had no camera and no mobile phone with me. I handed my mobile over to my assistant before getting on the American helicopter that took us to the scene,” he said.
By rushing through the execution just four days after the former president’s appeal failed, over the reservations of the U.S. ambassador who urged a two-week delay, Maliki made good on a promise to fellow Shi’ites that few had once found credible — that Saddam would not live to see 2007.
A senior adviser to Maliki told Reuters Iraqi authorities had not yet set a date to hang Saddam’s half-brother and a former judge convicted with him for crimes against humanity.
Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half brother and former intelligence chief, and Awad al-Bander, a former chief judge, were found guilty along with Saddam in the killings of 148 Shi’ite men from Dujail in the 1980s.
“Most probably they will be executed next week after the holiday,” senior Maliki aide Sami Al-Askari told Reuters, referring to Eid al-Adha.