US forces will not hand over "Chemical Ali" and two other cohorts of late dictator Saddam Hussein for execution until a legal row is settled, the US embassy said yesterday, responding to a bitter attack by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"There continue to be differences in viewpoint within the government of Iraq regarding the necessary Iraqi legal and procedural requirements for carrying out death sentences issued by the Iraqi High Tribunal," US spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.
"Coalition forces will continue to retain physical custody of the defendants until this issue is resolved," she said.
On Sunday, Maliki accused the US embassy of playing an "unfortunate role" in preventing the handover of the three condemned men, who, like other members of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime, are in US military custody.
He told a press conference in Baghdad that his government was "determined" that the executions be carried out.
Ali Hassan al-Majid, widely known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of poisonous gas against Kurds; Sultan Hashim al-Tai, Saddam Hussein's defense minister; and Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti, his armed forces deputy chief of operations, were sentenced to death on June 24.
They were found responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Kurds in the so-called Anfal (Spoils) campaign of 1988.
Under Iraqi law they were supposed to have been executed by Oct. 4, 30 days after their sentences were upheld by the Iraq Supreme Court.
But Maliki made it clear he did not want the executions to take place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended on Oct. 15, because of the outcry that followed Saddam Hussein's execution during another Muslim holiday.
More than a month after the deadline the sentences have not yet been carried out and lawyers claim that since the deadline was not adhered to, executing the men would be illegal.
Further complicating matters, two members of the presidential council, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, have refused to sign the execution order.
In the case of Saddam Hussein, Talabani, who is opposed on principle to the death penalty, refused to give the order but signed a letter to the Shiite prime minister saying he would raise no objections if the government went ahead.
Hashemi fears that the execution of Hashim could undermine already stuttering reconciliation efforts in post-Saddam Iraq.
The vice president argues that Hashim, a career military man, had little choice but to follow orders from Saddam Hussein.