BAGHDAD // Iraq's president said on Wednesday that he won't sign off on a death penalty sentence against one of Saddam Hussein's closest confidantes, Tariq Aziz, setting the stage for a possible battle over the fate of the man known as the international face of the dictator's regime.
The decision to prosecute and execute members of Saddam's regime is a source of controversy in Iraq where many members of the country's Shiite majority, who suffered under the ousted Sunni-dominated regime, want vengeance for past crimes.
Aziz was Christian and not Sunni, but many in the Sunni community view his conviction and those of others as proof they'll forever be held responsible for actions carried out years ago. The Vatican has urged Iraq to not carry out the death sentence and said it may try to intervene diplomatically to halt it.
During an interview that aired Wednesday with France 24 TV, President Jalal Talabani cited a number of reasons for refusing to approve the execution.
"I cannot sign an order of this kind because I am a Socialist," Talabani said. "I feel compassion for Tariq Aziz because he is a Christian, an Iraqi Christian.
"In addition, he is an elderly man - aged over 70 - and this is why I will never sign this order," Talabani said in Arabic through a translator. He was speaking in Paris, where he attended a meeting of the Socialist International this week.
Talabani has refused to sign off on death sentences for other former regime members, including former defense minister Sultan Hashim al Taie, who signed the cease-fire with U.S.-led forces that ended the 1991 Gulf war and remains in U.S. custody.
However, it was not immediately clear whether Talabani's opposition would necessarily spare Aziz's life. Under the constitution, the president is supposed to ratify death sentences, but there are mechanisms for the execution to be carried out through parliament.
Justice Ministry spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar told The Associated Press that 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," Bayrkdar said.
The 74-year-old Aziz was the highest-ranking Christian in Saddam Hussein's inner circle. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging on Oct. 26 for his role in persecuting members of the Shiite religious parties that now dominate the country.
Aziz, who surrendered to U.S. forces about a month after the war started in March 2003, has already been convicted in two other cases, receiving a combined 22 years in prison. In an interview with The Associated Press this summer, Aziz predicted he would die in prison.
In the long-running case for which he received the death penalty, Aziz was accused of being part of a campaign of persecuting, killing and torturing members of the Shiite opposition and religious parties banned under Saddam. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member of one of the religious parties central to the case.
The death sentence came two months after Aziz was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody. Under Iraqi law, Aziz had 30 days to appeal the death sentence.
Aziz's supporters have argued that he was not responsible for the crimes for which he's accused but is being persecuted simply because he was a member of Saddam's regime.
Aziz's eldest son, Ziad, praised Talabani for his position.
"I want to reassert that my father's execution sentence was a political decision. Therefore, it's null and void," said Aziz's son, speaking from neighboring Jordan where he lives. "As a family, we thank the president and we appreciate his decision."
The pursuit of criminal cases against former members of Saddam's regime demonstrates the deep hatred that exists even today among the country's current Shiite leadership and within the Shiite population as well.