BAGHDAD, Oct 23 (Reuters) Saddam Hussein's former defence minister, Sultan Hashem, should be dead. So, too, should Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, after a court ordered both men to hang for a genocidal campaign against Iraq's Kurds.
But things are not going according to plan for Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government, despite its best efforts to set a date for the pair to follow Saddam to the gallows. A third army commander also faces execution for his role in the campaign.
Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi has threatened to resign if it goes ahead, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, says he opposes executions in principle but also believes army officers who followed orders should not face such punishment.
They argue the constitution requires the presidency council, which also includes Vice-President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shi'ite, to approve the executions. The government disagrees and a committee has been set up to try to resolve the dispute.
The legal dispute has been complicated by a growing chorus of calls for Hashem's life to be spared, with many Sunnis saying he was a courageous soldier simply following orders. There is also a murky tale of collusion with the Americans and empty promises of amnesty if he cooperated.
The Iraqi vice president told Reuters in an interview in September that he had learned of an attempt by the government to execute the three men ''but the president and I managed to stop this unlawful and unconstitutional attempt at the last moment''.
''I said that if the constitution was bypassed and the sentencing of the officers was implemented in violation of the constitution before a presidential order (was issued), I would hand in my resignation,'' he said.
The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan also forced a delay.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said last week they would be executed ''in days'' but that seems an optimistic timetable.
US CUSTODY For the moment the pair remain in US custody, in a location kept secret for security reasons, with the US military caught in the stand-off between the presidency and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Time magazine reported that Hashem was due to be executed on September. 11, but US officials refused to hand him over because of the objections of leaders like Talabani.
A senior US military official told Reuters they are awaiting an ''authoritative government of Iraq request'' for the three men to be handed over for execution.
''My understanding is that the presidency council must be part of the process,'' said Colonel Steve Boylan, spokesman for the US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
Some Iraqi officials are suspicious that the US military is protecting Hashem, amid persistent allegations he collaborated with them to topple Saddam in 1996 and 2003.
A former member of a secret CIA task force in northern Iraq, Rick Francona, has said Hashem first reached out to the CIA through Talabani, then a Kurdish rebel leader, in 1996, when the agency was fomenting a plot to oust Saddam.
In 1988, Hashem was commander of Task Force Anfal, which targeted Kurdish areas in northern Iraq in a military campaign that killed tens of thousands and destroyed entire villages.
But his supporters say he was simply a figurehead and that real authority lay with Saddam's cousin Majeed, widely known as ''Chemical Ali'', who was in overall charge of the operation.
By the time of the US-led invasion, Hashem had risen to become defence minister. He surrendered on September. 19, 2003, after Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, wrote him a letter asking him to give himself up.
The letter, which Reuters has a copy of, is revealing for Petraeus's comments on respecting the military chain of command.
''As military men we follow the orders of our superiors,'' he wrote, echoing the argument of Hashem's supporters.
''We may not necessarily agree with the politics and bureaucracy, but we understand unity of command and supporting our leaders in a common and just cause. However, the collapse of your regime necessitates your thoughtful reconsideration of support,'' he said.
''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.'' US military officials say that promise was not an offer of amnesty, but the human rights official who negotiated his surrender and his family say there was an agreement that he would be immune from prosecution.
''Petraeus made a promise to the head of the tribes that nothing would happen to him. He would stay in US custody for five weeks and then he would be released. But that didn't happen,'' Hashem's son, Mohammed, told Reuters.
Mohammed said the family last spoke to Hashem, now on trial for his role in crushing a Shi'ite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, by telephone two weeks ago.
''He is resigned to death,'' he said.
REUTERS ARB RK0945