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President opposes death sentence

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Tariq Aziz was the international face of Saddam Hussein's regime (AP)

Iraq’s president has declared that he will not sign off on the hanging of Tariq Aziz.

He joins the Vatican and others in objecting to the death sentence for the man who for years was the international face of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

President Jalal Talabani’s statement sets up a showdown between those seeking maximum punishment for key figures of the ousted regime and groups calling for reconciliation after years of fierce sectarian conflict unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion.

“I feel compassion for Tariq Aziz because he is a Christian, an Iraqi Christian,” Mr Talabani, a Kurd, told France’s 24 TV. “In addition, he is an elderly man – aged over 70 – and this is why I will never sign this order.”

However, Mr Talabani’s opposition does not necessarily mean that Aziz, 74, will escape the noose. He was sentenced in October for his alleged role in a campaign of persecuting, killing and torturing members of Shiite opposition and religious parties that now dominate Iraq.

The Iraqi constitution says death sentences must be ratified by the president before they can be carried out. But there are mechanisms to bypass the president – such as an act of parliament or the approval of one of Mr Talabani’s deputies.

Justice Ministry spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said death penalties can be carried out regardless of the president’s refusal to sign an execution order. “If the president refuses to sign an execution that is not a veto on a verdict,” Mr Bayrkdar said.

Although Mr Talabani says the death penalty violates his socialist principles, many convicted criminals and members of the former regime – including Saddam himself – have been executed during his presidency.

Mr Talabani has tried to block only one proposed execution – that of Saddam’s defence minister, Sultan Hashim al-Taie, a popular figure among the country’s Sunni minority. Al-Taie, who was sentenced to death three years ago, is still alive.

It is unclear whether Mr Talabani will follow up his comments with a vigorous campaign to save Aziz’s life.

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