BAGHDAD (AFP) – US forces will not hand over “Chemical Ali” and two other cohorts of Saddam Hussein for execution until a legal row is settled, the US embassy said Monday, responding to a bitter attack by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“There continue to be differences in viewpoint within the government of Iraq regarding the necessary Iraqi legal and procedural requirements for carrying out death sentences issued by the Iraqi High Tribunal,” US spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo told AFP.
“Coalition forces will continue to retain physical custody of the defendants until this issue is resolved,” she said.
On Sunday, Maliki accused the US embassy of playing an “unfortunate role” in preventing the handover of the three condemned men, who, like other members of Saddam’s ousted regime, are in US military custody.
He told a press conference in Baghdad that his government was “determined” that the executions be carried out.
But Nantongo was adamant the condemned men would not be handed over for hanging before the legal hitches are resolved.
“There is still discussion within the government of Iraq over the legal requirements in this case. We are waiting for the government to come to consensus as to what their law requires before preparing a physical transfer,” she said.
Ali Hassan al-Majid, widely known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of poisonous gas against Kurds; Sultan Hashim al-Tai, Saddam’s defence minister; and Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti, his armed forces deputy chief of operations, were sentenced to death on June 24.
They were found responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Kurds in the so-called Anfal (Spoils) campaign of 1988.
Under Iraqi law they were supposed to have been executed by October 4, 30 days after their sentences were upheld by the Iraq Supreme Court.
But Maliki made it clear he did not want the executions to take place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended on October 15, because of the outcry that followed Saddam Hussein’s execution during another Muslim holiday.
More than a month after the deadline the sentences have not yet been carried out and lawyers claim that since the deadline was not adhered to, executing the men would be illegal.
Further complicating matters, two members of the presidential council, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, have refused to sign the execution orders.
In the case of Saddam, Talabani, who is opposed on principle to the death penalty, refused to give the order but signed a letter to the Shiite prime minister saying he would raise no objections if the government went ahead.
He has repeatedly come out in defence of Hashim al-Tai.
“This man does not deserve execution, ” Talabani said in an interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television last month.
“He was a capable and excellent officer who implemented Saddam Hussein’s strict orders. He could not disobey orders.”
Vice President Hashemi fears that the execution of Hashim al-Tai could undermine already stuttering reconciliation efforts in post-Saddam Iraq.
The vice president, too, argues that Hashim, a career military man, had little choice but to follow orders from Saddam.
US ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters in Baghdad on October 25 it was essential that all legal aspects be resolved.
“This is an Iraqi judicial process. We think it is very important that the rule of law be respected here and that, when and as necessary, that the time be taken to be sure that all of the issues are clarified,” he said.
An estimated 182,000 Kurds were killed and 4,000 villages wiped out in the brutal campaign of bombings, mass deportations and gas attacks.
Saddam’s regime said the Anfal campaign was a necessary counter-insurgency operation during Iraq’s eight-year war with neighbouring Iran.