Three of Saddam Hussein's top aides are due to be hanged some time soon for their roles in the massacre of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, but fear is spreading that the impending assassination of two of them will further stall reconciliation.
Some Iraqi officials fear that hanging Gen. Hussein al-Tikriti and Gen. Sultan Hashim al-Tai, in particular, could inflame sectarian tensions and alienate some Sunni tribes who are now working with U.S. forces.
Sunni Arabs see al-Tai's death sentence as further evidence of a Shiite Muslim witch hunt against their minority's once-dominant position and of undue influence by the Shiite-dominated government over the judiciary.
"There will be disastrous consequences if those officers are going to be hanged," said Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab who is one of Iraq's two vice presidents.
But there is hardly any sympathy among Iraqis for Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who earned the nickname "Chemical Ali" for the enthusiasm he exhibited in ordering mustard and sarin gas attacks that killed thousands of Kurdish civilians in 1988.
The three aides to Saddam Hussein were convicted in June of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Vice President Hashemi said carrying out the death sentence against Hashim could further undermine the already stalled reconciliation efforts in post-Saddam Iraq. Hashemi argues that Hashim, a 65-year-old career military officer, had little choice but to follow orders from his brutal boss.
"It's really very difficult to believe that just because they obey orders issued by a leader like Saddam Hussein they had, in fact, an option to just take it or leave it. National reconciliation does mean forget about the past and let us dedicate everything, in fact, to the future. We would like, in fact, to copy the reconciliation of Nelson Mandela," Hashemi said.
But reconciliation among South Africans included genuine remorse and a full accounting of crimes, measures Hashim hardly embraced during his trial.
Still, Hashim is seen as a professional soldier who oversaw the Iraqi army, not the elite units loyal to Saddam. A U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that during the 2003 U.S. invasion Hashim, then defense minister to Saddam, may have played a key role in convincing the Iraqi army not to dig in and fight.
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, a Kurd who's opposed to the death penalty, has refused to sign the execution orders, amid calls from Sunnis to spare Hashim's life.
But Sami al-Askari, a prominent Shiite member of parliament, said any commutation would set a dangerous precedent.
"The calls to commute the sentence have no legal basis because the court's law is clear," he said, "and no party, be it the presidency or the prime minister or parliament, has the power to commute or abolish those verdicts."
American officials in Iraq fear that if Hashim is hanged it could alienate some key Sunni tribes and former insurgents who only recently joined the Americans in battling al-Qaida in Iraq, a group comprised mainly of Iraqi Sunnis.
Yet to many Shia and Kurds, Hashim is simply a Saddam-era war criminal who was directly involved in the decisions to use poison gas against Kurdish civilians.
Said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament: "We have files in which Sultan Hashim himself has said that he hasn't only executed orders, he has planned Anfal number one and two in which chemical weapons were used. And he was not ready to regret what he has done."
The al-Anfal was a campaign against the Kurds that unfolded in stages in the late 80s.
Othman notes – with disgust – that Gen. Hashim even named his daughter Anfal, which is Arabic for 'spoils of war.'
After the U.S. invasion Hashim voluntarily surrendered in Mosul to U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, now the top American commander in Iraq.
Back then, Petraeus called Hashim a man of "honor and integrity" and in a letter pledged he wouldn't be harmed if he gave up.
Hashim is currently in U.S. custody. He wasn't handed over to the Iraqi government for a hanging originally scheduled for September. A U.S. military official said he will be turned over to the Iraqis once a decision is made by an Iraqi committee set up to resolve disputes over death penalty procedures that Hashim's case has sparked.
But like much else in Iraq's government, that committee remains deadlocked over just what to do.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press