( AP ) - An Iraqi vice president intensified his public dispute with the prime minister Tuesday, saying the country's presidential council had the authority to block the executions of Saddam Hussein's cousin, known as "Chemical Ali," and two other former officials.
Withholding ratification amounts to granting a stay of the execution, said Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. He expressed surprise that the court, which upheld the sentences last month, had not yet presented a copy of its verdict to the three-man presidential council for endorsement.
The council is made up of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and two vice presidents: the Sunni Arab al-Hashemi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite.
Al-Hashemi said a Sept. 4 request by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, for the three to be handed over to Iraqi authorities in preparation for their execution was unconstitutional, insisting that only the presidential council had the power to endorse a death sentence.
He said he called the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad when he learned of the request, threatening that if the Americans complied, he would "publicly and frankly declare that the Americans and the government have conspired together to violate the constitution by carrying out executions without a presidential decree."
Al-Hashemi's comments, made in a statement by his office, are the latest episode in his growing rift with al-Maliki over a host of issues.
In the death sentence issue, al-Hashemi is trying to stop the executions of the three men convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in June for their part in the "Operation Anfal" crackdown that killed nearly 200,000 Kurdish civilians and guerrillas two decades ago.
The death sentences against Saddam's cousin "Chemical Ali" al-Majid, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former deputy operations director of the Iraqi armed forces, were upheld on appeal early last month.
The hangings were to occur within 30 days, but were put off until the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ended in mid-October.
The three remained in the custody of the U.S. military as questions were raised over the legality of the decision. Talabani, who opposes the death penalty, said he would not sign off as called for by the constitution. He said al-Tai was an army officer who would have faced a certain death if he did not carry out Saddam's orders.
However, Talabani, himself a Kurd, distanced himself from Chemical Ali's fate.
A senior al-Maliki aide said Monday that Iraqi officials told U.S. military commanders that no one in the executive branch of the government had the authority to commute or rescind the death sentences and that the decision of an Iraqi court should be respected.
The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the Americans had no immediate response, arguing that the court that upheld the death sentences was ambivalent on the question of whether the presidential council must ratify the sentences before they are carried out.
Al-Hashemi has been an outspoken critic of al-Maliki, accusing him of pursuing sectarian policies and monopolizing power.
He has vigorously campaigned in recent weeks for the release of thousands of security detainees not charged with specific crimes. The large majority of the 25,000 Iraqis held prisoner by the U.S. military are Sunni Arabs, and al-Hashemi, accompanied by TV camera crews, has been touring the country's jails to publicize their plight.
Al-Maliki, in a thinly veiled reference to al-Hashemi, said last week that he will no longer permit "politically motivated" visits to jails by government officials. The vice president retorted that al-Maliki had no authority to stop him.