BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's office lashed out Friday at the Iraqi presidential council for refusing to approve the executions of two of the three men sentenced to hang for the genocidal campaign against Iraq's ethnic Kurdish minority during Saddam Hussein's rule.
The public dispute highlighted the persistent rancor between Iraq's major ethnic and religious factions, which continues to paralyze the highest levels of government nearly five years after Hussein's fall.
Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has pressed for speedy executions for the three, who were convicted in June of genocide and other crimes for their roles in a late-1980s military crackdown known as the Anfal, or "spoils of war," campaign, which killed as many as 180,000 Kurds.
Earlier Friday, senior government aides said the three-member presidency council, which consists of President Jalal Talabani and two vice presidents, had signed off on the execution of Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan Majid, who became known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering the use of poison gas against villages said to be harboring Kurdish guerrillas. The council's decision was the last legal obstacle to carrying out the sentence, which must be done within 30 days.
But an aide said Vice President Tariq Hashimi, who, like the defendants, is a Sunni Arab, would not endorse the executions of the two military leaders who helped carry out the deadly attacks: Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai, a former defense minister, and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, the former deputy head of army operations.
Execution orders require the signatures of all three members of the presidency council under Iraqi law. Talabani, a Kurd who opposes the death penalty on principle, has given Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite, authority to sign on his behalf.
Many Sunnis regard Tai and Mohammed as military professionals who were only following orders, and Hashimi has argued that their lives should be spared.
Sensing an opportunity to encourage reconciliation, Talabani has also urged clemency for Tai, who is said to have had contact with the Iraqi opposition before the war and surrendered voluntarily to U.S. forces in 2003.
Iraq's two main Shiite parties, however, are opposed to commuting Tai's sentence because of his role in the brutal suppression of a 1991 Shiite uprising at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said Friday that the presidency council had no legal authority to hold up the executions by refusing to endorse the decision of the Iraqi High Tribunal, which was upheld by an appeals court in September.
"Their death sentence was issued as one court order for three persons together, so it is incorrect to separate their verdicts and treat them differently," Dabbagh said in an angry phone call. "Especially in such cases, the presidential council cannot pardon or reduce their sentence."
The judiciary system has been unable to resolve the deadlock.
A Justice Ministry council ruled in October that the presidential council could not block the court order. But if an execution order is not signed by all three members of the council, the defendant's sentence remains in legal limbo.
Such disputes have frozen progress in Iraq's government, which is under pressure to match recent gains on the security front with steps to ease tensions between major ethnic and religious groups.
The split decision on the executions came days after the council failed to approve a law considered key to reconciliation that would have outlined the distribution of power among different levels of government and paved the way to provincial elections.
In Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish enclave, many rejoiced Friday at the news that Majid would soon hang.
Shereen Mahmoud has been in mourning since the day six of her relatives were killed when Iraqi airplanes dumped mustard and nerve gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja. She vowed Friday to discard her black clothes and start wearing colors again the day the sentence was carried out.
"I was feeling very sad when I heard that Ali Majid and Sultan Hashim would not be hanged," said the woman, reached by telephone. "But today, when I heard about the approval, I decided to go to . . . Halabja cemetery and stand in front of my family's graves and shout as loud as I can that Ali Hassan Majid will hang."
But there was also widespread bitterness that the other execution orders had not been approved. Sirwan Ghareeb, a journalist in Sulaymaniya, said it was "a mistake for the future to forgive the crimes committed against our people."
Many in Halabja want the execution to be carried out in the town, where about 5,000 people were gassed to death. But others in the Kurdish north said they just wanted justice to be done and did not want it to appear like revenge.
"What is important is to execute Chemical Ali, to see and hear him vanishing from life," said Nisreen Kareem, an employee of the Sulaymaniya municipality.
"I don't want him to be executed in Kurdistan. Iraq is for everyone; he should be executed in Baghdad since it's Iraq's capital."
The three men remain in American custody. The U.S. military said it had received no immediate request to hand Majid over to the Iraqi government, which would be a sign that his execution was imminent.
Times staff writers Tina Susman and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad and special correspondent Asso Ahmed in Sulaymaniya contributed to this report.