BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Iraqi officials backed away on Thursday from suggestions they would hang Saddam Hussein within a month, amid speculation the government is divided over whether to execute the ousted leader quickly.
As the US military death toll in Iraq hit 100 for December so far, closing in on 3,000 after nearly four years of war, President George W. Bush said he was making “good progress” in forming a new Iraq strategy at a meeting with top advisers at his Texas ranch.
“Success in Iraq is vital for our own security,” Bush told reporters after meeting Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials.
He said he was “making good progress towards coming up with a plan that we think will help us achieve our objectives. As I think about this plan, I always have our troops in mind.” Bush, expected to announce the plans next month, has brushed aside a proposal from a bipartisan panel to ask US foes Iran and Syria for help in stabilising Iraq and is said to be looking closely at a temporary troop increase.
The sentencing of Saddam on November 5 for crimes against humanity by a US-sponsored Iraqi court was hailed by the Bush administration as a vindication of the 2003 invasion and proof of Iraqi democracy. But as the country slides towards sectarian civil war, Saddam’s fate is bound up with factional disputes.
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had said he wanted Saddam hanged this year for the killings, torture and other crimes against the Shiite population of the town of Dujail in the 1980s. But some of Saddam’s fellow Sunnis have warned this could reinforce their alienation and many ethnic Kurds want Saddam first convicted of genocide against them.
The Iraqi High Tribunal confirmed in a website posting that an appeal against Saddam’s death sentence had failed. The judge who first announced the ruling on Tuesday had referred to a statute which says hangings must take place within 30 days of the failure of an appeal.
But two senior officials told Reuters on Thursday the execution would only happen within 30 days if Iraq’s president issued a decree ordering an immediate execution. That seems unlikely. If he does not do so in that time the justice ministry can carry out the sentence any day it chooses.
The Cabinet and president have declined requests for comment on the timing. Under the penal code, a religious holiday lasting until January 6 means no execution should take place before then.
“The justice ministry will not implement it before one full month is up,” said Deputy Justice Minister Bosho Ibrahim, from the Kurdish minority.
“After one full month the justice ministry can decide when it will carry out the execution,” he added.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has refused to sign death warrants in other cases but has delegated his powers to his Shiite and Sunni vice presidents. In any event, both the constitution and high tribunal statutes deny the presidency the power to block executions ordered for such serious crimes.
Tribunal spokesman Raed Jouhi said: “There are two options.
“In death sentences issued by our court, if there is a presidential decree within 30 days, then they can carry it out at any time. But if there is no decree, then after these 30 days it becomes obligatory in any case and it will be up to the justice ministry to decide when it wants to carry it out.” The United States has welcomed the court’s ruling on Saddam and two aides who face similar sentences. However, there have been security concerns over the possibility of Sunni unrest if the executions go ahead.
Violence already is killing dozens of people a day and has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, many for points abroad. In the past month, over 100,000 have registered for aid as internal refugees.
The US military reported five more military deaths on Thursday, taking the number to die since the March 2003 invasion to at least 2,989. A car bomb near a Baghdad stadium killed 10 people and two other bombs killed a further seven in the city.
In Washington, an AP-AOL News poll said Bush far outdistanced Osama Ben Laden and Saddam when Americans were asked to choose their bad guy of 2006.
However, in a sign of the polarised times, Bush also topped the list when people were asked to name their hero of the year, but by a much smaller margin.
When people were asked to name the candidate that first came to mind for “biggest villain of the year,” Bush won by a landslide, with 25 per cent, followed by Ben Laden in second place with 8 per cent.
Rounding out the top five villains were Saddam, who is awaiting execution, with 6 per cent, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 5 per cent, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il , 2 per cent â€” from the three countries Bush once designated as the “Axis of Evil.”
Â In the polling for “biggest hero of the year,” 13 per cent named Bush as their favorite, while 6 per cent chose the US troops in Iraq.
Bush was the choice of 43 per cent of Democrats for villain of the year, and 27 per cent of Republicans for hero.