The controversial executions of some members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime could be put on hold indefinitely, according to a deal taking shape between Iraqi political parties working to avert yet another political crisis.
The move would be a significant shift from an announcement by the Justice Ministry last week that execution orders could be signed in days and the men put to death this month.
The six former regime officials to be executed include former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and five others handed over by the US military last week along with almost 200 other prisoners. The US had been holding the prisoners at Camp Cropper, its high-security penitentiary on the outskirts of Baghdad now primarily under Iraqi control.
“There are efforts made by some political blocs to bring about a way to avoid execution for some of those who have been sentenced to death – the efforts are ongoing,” says Justice Ministry spokesman Haider al-Saade.
By suspending the execution orders, at least in the short term, the deal could prevent a widening of political and sectarian rifts at a particularly precarious time in Iraq.
Former Defense minister's execution most controversial
There is little quarrel among most Iraqis with hanging Saddam Hussein’s half-brothers, Watban Ibrahim Hassan and Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, who were considered an integral part of the regime and sentenced to death two years ago for the 1992 executions of 42 Iraqi businessmen.
Some Iraqis, as well as countries including Italy, oppose the hanging of Mr. Aziz, the international face of the former regime and the only Christian in Hussein’s cabinet, who lawmakers say is now also likely be given a stay of execution. Aziz, in his 80s and in ill health, was transferred to Iraqi custody last year. As a member of Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council, he was sentenced to hang for his role in the regime’s brutal crackdown on Shiite opposition parties.
But it is the planned execution of former Defense minister Sultan Hashim that has threatened to widen political and sectarian rifts at a time while Iraq’s divided coalition government seems to be struggling for survival and embroiled in the decision over whether to ask US troops to stay.
Opposition to Mr. Hashim’s death sentence is strongest in the ex-general’s hometown of Mosul – home to hundreds of former Iraqi Army generals cast aside when the US disbanded the Iraqi Army and still a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency. But he has widespread support among many Iraqis who see him as a nationalist rather than as a part of Hussein’s regime.
“Sultan Hashim was a professional military man, he wasn’t a politician. He was doing his duty to defend Iraq professionally,” says Zuhair al-Araji, former mayor of Mosul and now a member of parliament with the secular al-Iraqiya coalition. “Such professional, nonpolitical figures should not be punished for the mistakes of the regime.”
Many Iraqis feel that Hashim, who could easily have fled, was betrayed by the United States after being persuaded by US Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in northern Iraq at the time, to turn himself in with the widespread expectation that he would be acquitted.
Instead, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Court, set up by the US to try former regime officials, convicted him of involvement in Hussein’s campaign against Iraqi Kurds and sentenced to death. US military commanders have said they had no control over his fate after Iraq regained sovereignty.
A resistance group loyal to Hussein warned over the weekend that executing "patriotic military leaders'" would set a dangerous precedent that would put current military commanders at risk of being punished in the future for any government crimes.
The 'General Command of the Armed Forces' led by Saddam Hussein's former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who is still at large, warned the government in a statement against "carrying out these unjust sentences and calls on all international organizations to intervene and stop the death penalties for the military commanders."
Mr. Araji, the former Mosul mayor, was part of an Iraqiya delegation led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi that discussed the issue with President Jalal Talabani last week. Araji says that the president – a Kurd with a longstanding policy of not signing execution orders, leaving that task to his Shiite vice president – agreed to have a legal committee review the rulings. A spokesman for the presidency office, asked about the committee, said it was premature to comment on the matter.
“If they can by some legal loophole bring about the amnesty of some of those sentenced to death by the judiciary, we will receive their order and implement it,” says Saade, the Justice Ministry spokesman.
Justice sacrificed for national reconciliation?
Commuting or postponing the sentences would allay concerns that military officials are being made to pay for the crimes of the former regime. But it has also raised fears among some that justice is being sacrificed in the name of national reconciliation.
“Some people say these sentences might damage national reconciliation – should national reconciliation override justice?” asks Abbas al-Bayati, a lawmaker and member of the parliamentary security committee, who says he personally believes the executions should be carried out.
Nevertheless, he – like a wide range of lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament – expects the death sentences for Hashim and Aziz to be suspended indefinitely.
Former Interior Minister Juwad al-Bolani, now a member of parliament, says he believes that sentences for both men “will either be commuted or included in political agreements to review the decisions.”
“As a lawmaker, I don’t want to interfere in the judicial system – it is independent – but there is a desire from more than 50 percent of the lawmakers,” to commute some of the sentences to life in prison says Ibrahim al-Rikabi, an independent member of the State of Law.
Some members of parliament believed that former Iraqi Army general Hussein Rasheed al-Tikriti, convicted for putting down a revolt by Iraqi Shiites in the south in 1991 while he was secretary of the general command of the Armed Forces, could also be given a reprieve.
Any amnesty is not expected to apply, however, to another ex-Army general transferred by the US, Aziz Saleh al-Numan, who was convicted last year of attempted genocide in a campaign by the regime against Shiite Kurds. Both of the elderly generals were among those transferred last week from US custody.
Remaining prisoners in US custody
The US, which has until Dec. 31 to hand over all remaining Iraqi detainees, has released all but 10 of the prisoners it had kept in its custody after transferring control of most of the Camp Cropper detention facility last year. Among the nearly 200 just released last week, more than 80 were considered enduring security threats and over 100 of them "dangerous radicals." The remaining group of 10 is being held for legal and administrative reasons.
One of the questions in the US handing over detainees is whether the legal basis for holding them would hold up under stricter rules for keeping prisoners since Iraq regained its sovereignty. The US has traditionally been reluctant to share all intelligence it has on detainees with Iraqi authorities.
After embarrassing, high-profile prison breaks there are also concerns about the ability of Iraq to keep the most dangerous of the detainees, among them hardened Al Qaeda fighters, in custody.
Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi contributed reporting.