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By Luke Baker
Baghdad - Iraq's government reluctantly reinstated the death penalty for crimes including murder, kidnapping and drug running on Sunday, saying the move was a necessity and would last until stability was restored.
Minister of State Adnan al-Janabi said the measure was effective immediately, but there was confusion about whether it could be applied retroactively, casting doubt on whether Saddam Hussein could be put to death if found guilty of crimes.
"This is the most difficult day of my life," Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq's human rights minister, told reporters as he and Janabi unveiled the law. Amin, exiled under Saddam, has been an ardent campaigner against the death penalty for several decades.
While extremely common during Saddam's rule, capital punishment was suspended by the occupying US authorities last year. Since taking office on June 28 this year, Iraq's interim government has hinted repeatedly at reintroducing it.
Janabi said the measure would not come into force until published in the official gazette, probably in the coming days.
He said the measure was being imposed with a strong degree of reluctance, but was necessary in Iraq's highly unstable situation and was something that many Iraqis favoured.
"This law is to help protect the Iraqi people in the face of an onslaught of indiscriminate murder. I think it may help," he said, adding that it would remain in force until the security situation was deemed more stable.
As well as murder, kidnapping and drug running, the law would also cover crimes such as rape, attacks on transport convoys and the financing and execution of terrorism, according to an Arabic text.
Its introduction comes a day after the government announced an amnesty for guerrillas who have committed minor crimes, making it part of a two-pronged approach to staunching the 16-month uprising - a hard line coupled with accommodation.
Amin said he hoped the law would have to be enforced as little as possible and emphasised that it could, like other laws, be overturned by a two-thirds majority in the National Council, a body due to be elected later this month.
"The intention is that this law will be implemented for exceptional cases ... We are not applying it out of conviction."
Last month, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari came under pressure from the European Union in Brussels to oppose the reinstatement of capital punishment, a measure most EU countries abolished decades ago but which is used in the United States.
Close US ally Britain said it opposed the death penalty on principle. "If the Iraqi government has reintroduced the death penalty we will lobby them to abolish it as we would do with other states that have the death penalty," a spokesman at London's Foreign Office said.
Amin acknowledged the opposition of European leaders, but said Iraq was not Europe.
"It is true that many European countries today have abolished the death penalty ... but they didn't do it right away after the Second World War," he said, pointing out that Iraq's recent history was like Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism combined.
As well as confusion over when the law comes into force and whether it applies to criminals caught from that date or cases coming before a judge from then, there was also no clarity on what method of execution would be used.
Under Saddam, hanging and the firing squad were common.
"I personally hate to see anyone put to death," said Amin. "There is nothing humane, there is no humane way of doing it."