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Saddam may escape noose in deal to halt insurgency

London Telegraph | April 11 2005

Saddam Hussein could avoid the gallows under a secret proposal by insurgent leaders that Iraq's new administration is "seriously considering", a senior government source said yesterday.

A reprieve is understood to be among the central demands of Sunni nationalists and former members of Saddam's Ba'ath party who have reportedly begun negotiations with the government amid the backdrop of a bloody insurgency which claimed 30 lives during the weekend.

Officials say they are looking for a way of joining the political process after January's election, which was boycotted by most of the once-powerful Sunni minority.

"We are trying to reach out to the insurgents," the source said. "We don't expect them to stop fighting unconditionally. Sending Saddam to prison for the rest of his life is not a huge price for us to pay, but it will save them a lot of face."

The official said those involved in the negotiations included senior members of Saddam's Fedayeen militia and the Jaish Mohammed, a grouping of former army officers that operates under the guise of an Islamist organisation.

But it is unclear if those at the talks genuinely represent a majority of the deeply fragmented insurgency. While a deal could represent an important step towards ending the violence that has plagued postwar Iraq, a reprieve for Saddam would infuriate many in the country. He is unlikely to come to trial before the end of this year, but Jalal Talabani, Iraq's new president, has already begun to prepare his people for a possible reprieve.

Asked about the fate of Saddam in an interview yesterday in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, the president, who is a Kurd, stated his personal opposition to a death sentence.

"I am among the lawyers who signed an international petition against the death penalty around the world and it would be a problem for me if Iraqi courts issued death sentences," he said.

Though Mr Talabani's powers are largely ceremonial, he has the power, as the head of a three-man presidential council, to commute death sentences. The two vice presidents that make up the remainder of the council, Ghazi al Yawar, a Sunni, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shia, have not stated their positions.

Further demonstrating his determination for a political settlement to the insurgency, Mr Talabani proposed an amnesty for fighters last week. But al-Qa'eda's wing in Iraq, which is led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, yesterday rejected the offer and dismissed Mr Talabani as an American "agent".

Though they regard Mr Talabani as a hero, many Kurds said they opposed any plans not to execute Saddam.

"Anything but death for Saddam would be a travesty of justice," said Nawzad Othman, a greengrocer whose brother was among 5,000 Kurds killed in the notorious chemical weapon attack on Halabja in 1988. "A murderer like that cannot be allowed to live."

Iraq's new government, dominated by the majority Shia community and its Kurdish coalition partners, faces a tricky balancing act. Its attempts to reach out to all parties were boosted yesterday when the outgoing interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia, agreed to join the new government after weeks of negotiation. It was unclear if Mr Allawi or any of his bloc would take cabinet posts.

Shia MPs in the cleric-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which won 51 per cent of the vote in the election, are unhappy with the development and accuse Mr Allawi of corruption.