A Saddam Aide's Aborted Execution

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Darko Bandic / AFP / Getty

Saddam Hussein's Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmad al-Tai, during his trial in Baghdad, in 2006.

Saddam Hussein's last defense minister was saved from the gallows last month by an unlikely savior — the United States. On the night of September 10, Sultan Hashem was five hours away from his death, his will written and the executioner ready, a senior Iraqi official told TIME. The Iraqi government had planned to carry out his death sentence at 3 a.m. on the sixth anniversary of 9/11. But Hashem, like all high-value prisoners from the former regime, was in U.S. custody. And at 10 p.m., word came that the helicopter from the U.S. prison at Camp Cropper was not coming, and the condemned man would not be handed over. Hashem's life was spared — for the moment.

The stalled execution produced a series of heated telephone calls between U.S. and Iraqi officials who had arranged the hanging. The reason given by the U.S. for failing to hand over Hashem, according to an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was the public disapproval of his death sentence by President Jalal Talibani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. But Iraqi officials in Maliki's office suspected that Hashem was being shielded because of his key role in secret contacts with the U.S. before the invasion of Iraq — contacts that U.S. intelligence sources say led Hashem to assist the U.S. in minimizing resistance by the Iraqi Army, which largely faded away in the face of the invading Americans. Hashem's influence was over the professional army rather than the Republican Guard or other elements personally loyal to Saddam, said a former officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency in Iraq. Yet, his actions on behalf of the U.S. "saved American lives," says the same source, and perhaps the lives of quite a few Iraqi troops as well.

A former CIA officer with long experience in Iraq told TIME that turning over Hashem for execution would be a "gross miscarriage of justice." The CIA officer also confirmed longstanding reports that the U.S. had, in fact, sought to bring Hashem into a senior role in a post-invasion Iraqi government because of his identity as a Sunni, and as a "soldier's soldier" who was respected by a broad spectrum of the military.

Still, the ability of Hashem's American friends to protect him may be limited. Regardless of what assistance the former defense minister may have offered the U.S., he will eventually be turned over to the Iraqis to be hanged should the Baghdad government request it, a spokesman for U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus told TIME. The spokesman said the execution orders for Hashem had not yet been formally approved and added, "We will hand him over, he has been convicted by an Iraqi court —if they request it, we will hand him over." A senior Iraqi official insists that the request to hand over Hashem was made on September 10, and that the U.S. had misinterpreted Iraqi law by claiming that further approval was required.

If the U.S. military does in fact hand Hashem over for execution, the move would stand in jarring contrast to guarantees of safety and security given to the Iraqi personally by Petraeus when Hashem surrendered in 2003. Hashem was one of the very few top Iraqis to surrender himself voluntarily to the United States. Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, personally arranged his capitulation, guaranteeing his safety and medical treatment. "I officially request your surrender to me," Petraeus wrote in a personal letter to Hashem, noting the general's "reputation as a man of honor and integrity is known throughout this country."

Then Petraeus declared: "You have my word that you will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, and that you will not be physically or mentally mistreated while under my custody."

Asked about these assurances, Petraeus's spokesman said the U.S. general's guarantees were no longer operative, despite the fact that Hashem is being held in a U.S. military camp under Petraeus's command. As the spokesman put it, the earlier assurances in the letter "were specifically to ask for Hashem's surrender — there was no intimation of any further guarantees while in Gen. Petraeus' custody."

Hashem had been sentenced to death for directing the brutal Anfal Campaign in the late 1980s in which thousands of Kurds were massacred by the regime, many in the notorious chemical-weapons attack on civilians at Halabjah. The sentence was upheld by an appeals court, but several Iraqi politicians, including President Jalal Talibani have spoken out against hanging Hashem. Although Talabani has consistently opposed the death penalty on principle — even in the case of Saddam Hussein — other politicians may be concerned that the execution of a respected Sunni soldier could be disruptive to national reconciliation in an Iraq deeply divided along sectarian lines.

A senior Iraqi official insisted to TIME that Hashem's execution will proceed in coming weeks, following the end of the Ramadan fast and the Eid holiday on Saturday. "It will happen," he said, contending that the Iraqi High Tribunal that tried Hashem is an independent special court that does not require a presidential signature to carry out its orders. If Hashem is hanged, it will likely be along with two other Ba'athists convicted as war criminals, notably Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali."