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U.S. remains silent on Tarik Aziz sentence

As several Western nations and the U.N. appeal for clemency for the former Iraqi foreign minister sentenced to hang, Washington has not voiced an opinion. Experts says U.S. fears appearing to interfere or being hypocritical about the death penalty.

October 28, 2010|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — A growing number of countries and groups this week have urged Iraq to spare Saddam Hussein's former foreign minister from a death sentence, but there has been notable silence from one world capital: Washington.

The European Union, the Vatican, the United Nations, Russia, Greece and Amnesty International have asked Iraq to reconsider a court decision to execute Tarik Aziz. They have cited the 74-year-old's age, poor health and his secondary role in Hussein's inner circle and questions about the fairness of his trial.

But U.S. officials, who had a long and sometimes cooperative relationship with the diplomat, have not issued any such appeal.

"This is an Iraqi legal process," said a senior administration official who declined to be identified because he was speaking on a subject of diplomatic sensitivity. "We are staying out of it."

Aziz was convicted Tuesday of the torture and killing of Shiite Islamist party members. He has one month to appeal the sentence.

The U.S. government is in a difficult position for several reasons, say current and former officials and other analysts. The Obama administration, trying to reduce its role in Iraq, doesn't want to be seen as telling the government what to do.

U.S. pressure on the Iraqi government could backfire by stirring resentment in the government and making Iraqi leaders less likely to give Aziz clemency.

Moreover, it is difficult for Americans to criticize capital punishment in other countries when American courts order death sentences regularly, diplomats and analysts note.

"It's mildly awkward for the United States," said Steven Cook, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But it would be very awkward for the United States, after going to such lengths to try to stand up an independent government in Iraq, to take a position that would look like blatant interference."

Aziz, an Iraqi Christian, was known in the West as the courtly, cigar-smoking foreign minister who spoke for Hussein as the dictator faced off with world powers over suspected weapons programs. Aziz has been in prison and in poor health since the 2003 invasion.

He provided information to U.S. officials after the invasion, and there also are some hints that he had secret contacts with the United States even before Hussein's ouster.

David Newton, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who met often with Aziz, said Hussein had apparently forced Aziz to sign death decrees for some Iraqis. He said he knew of no violent side to Aziz.

But Wayne White, a former top official in the State Department's intelligence arm, said that after the invasion information came to light showing Aziz was directly involved in the regime's violent activity.

"There was a dark side," White said.

Newton speculated the U.S. may be privately urging the Iraqis not to carry out the execution.

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

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