Iraqi Sunnis Press to Delay Hangings

The Associated Press
Thursday, October 18, 2007; 8:46 PM

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's leaders grappled Thursday over the death sentences for three former Saddam Hussein regime heavyweights _ including the notorious enforcer known as "Chemical Ali" _ amid warnings the hangings could enflame sectarian violence and derail efforts at reconciliation.

But any serious delays in carrying out the executions also risk backlash from the victims of Saddam's attacks, including Kurds who faced a brutal crackdown in the 1980s that led to the death sentences.

The bind grew more difficult as Sunni leaders pressed to delay the hangings, saying they could incite violence and cripple already fragile bids to improve ties between Iraq's rival groups.

A court last month upheld the genocide and war crimes convictions against the three former regime insiders for their roles in the "Operation Anfal" campaign against autonomy-seeking Kurds in the 1980s that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Baghdad's attacks _ including the use of poison gas in the Kurdish town of Halabja _ came to symbolize the cruelty of Saddam's grip on power and brought the nickname "Chemical Ali" to one of the masterminds, Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid.

The others sentenced were former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim al-Tai and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former deputy operations director of the Iraqi armed forces.

The court ordered the hangings to occur within 30 days. They were put off until the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ended earlier this week.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials said the men remained in U.S. custody Thursday amid a swirl of legal questions and growing worries about the fallout.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who opposes the death penalty, said he would not sign off on the execution as technically required by Iraq's constitution. As a Kurd, Talabani's refusal carried special clout because of strong Kurdish desire to settle scores with Saddam's henchmen.

The trial brought emotional testimony from relatives of victims and survivors who told tales of being forced from their homes and surviving horrific attacks, including the poison cloud that engulfed Halabja in 1988 and left more than 5,000 people dead.

"Our understanding is that there are still discussions within the government of Iraq about how to proceed with this case and we are waiting for further clarification on the issue," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.

Nantongo confirmed the three men were still in U.S. custody but would not specify where for security reasons.

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