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Iraq: Leaders Split Over Saddam's Future

Prague, 20 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The largest political bloc in the new Iraqi parliament is demanding the execution of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Most Iraqis seem to support this demand.

This week, President Jalal Talabani's statements that he is opposed to the death sentence attracted much criticism. The Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance has insisted Talabani should resign if he is not prepared to sign the death warrant for the former dictator.

The new Iraqi administration is divided about the future of Hussein.

Talabani told the BBC on 18 April that signing a death warrant for Hussein would be contrary to the new president's personal beliefs as a human-rights advocate and opponent of capital punishment.

Talabani told the BBC: "I personally signed a call for ending execution throughout the world, and I'm respecting my signature." He conceded that he might be the only one in government holding this view.

Ali al-Dabagh, a spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance, immediately reacted to Talabani's statement. The alliance holds 140 seats in Iraq's 275-member National Assembly.

Al-Dabagh said that if "the court says he's [Hussein] a criminal, we will follow it." He said the president would have to follow the law or resign.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, an Iraq expert at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, said the United Iraqi Alliance reacted angrily to Talabani's statement because this group represents the Shi'a majority, which was ruthlessly persecuted by Hussein.

"I think the alliance has to make such a strong statement because of their voters," al-Karadaghi said. "You know they represent the Shi'a, they know the sentiments among their public, their constituency regarding this question."

He added that Talabani is in a difficult situation, as the majority of Iraqis want Hussein to be sentenced to death.

How to deal with Hussein is also a complex legal issue.

Muhammad al-Rashdan, a Jordanian lawyer who many people once thought would defend Hussein, told RFE/RL that from a legal point of view the whole discussion is a violation of judicial principles as people are speaking of the death penalty before Hussein has gone on trial.

"You speak about the punishment before the trial," al-Rashdan said. "It means you are expressing your opinion before the trial. It is forbidden for those people who announce their opinion about Hussein before the trial to do anything in this trial or to look after this case."

He said Talabani's opposition to executing Hussein is very shaky because the president himself admitted in the BBC interview that one of his deputies might sign the verdict.

It is unclear whether Talabani's opposition to the execution could cause a political rift.

Al-Karadaghi said it is premature to speak about a split in the ruling coalition.

"It's too early really to say that this will create a kind of split or a problem. Talabani himself said that he knows that everybody is in favor of the death sentence for Saddam Hussein," al-Karadaghi said. "And he himself, I am sure, knows that Saddam deserves a death sentence, but the question remains, as I said a moral question."

The death penalty was reintroduced in Iraq in August 2004 for crimes including murder, endangering national security, and drug trafficking. But it is only meant to be a temporary measure in the effort to stamp out the country's insurgency.

Al-Karadaghi said the majority of politicians are inclined to discuss lifting the death penalty only after Saddam's trial.

"I sometimes see in the Iraqi press some debate about this, but even those people who are against that sentence in their writings, in their papers say that, 'well yes, it is uncivilized and maybe we should abandon the death sentence but only after we sentence Saddam Hussein to death,'" al-Karadaghi said.

Saddam and senior regime figures will be tried before a special Iraqi tribunal, which was established in late 2003. The tribunal has given no official date for the start of the trials. Some Iraqi officials, however, have speculated that it could be before the end of the year.

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