Tariq Aziz, the dapper diplomat and highest-ranking Christian in Saddam Hussein's regime, was sentenced Tuesday to death by hanging for persecuting members of the Shiite religious parties that now dominate the country.
The decision to execute the 74-year-old Aziz, who has suffered a series of strokes in prison, shows the depth of hatred among the country's current Shiite leadership for top figures in a Baathist regime that sent hundreds of thousands of opponents to death or exile.
Among Shiites in the vast, eastern Baghdad slum called Sadr City, a gallows death for one of Saddam's ardent aides was considered a fitting end.
"This is a fair judicial court ruling against those whose hands are still bloodied," said Kamil Jassim, a 32-year-old teacher.
Many Sunnis, the minority Muslim sect that dominated Iraq under Saddam, questioned whether the death sentence was merely revenge masquerading as justice.
"The aim of this court, formed by this government, is to kill and liquidate all of the former regime's senior figures if they committed crimes or not. It is an unfair trial and unfair verdict," said Jameel Sahib Ali, a 50-year-old merchant in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
Aziz was wearing a blue suit and his trademark oversized glasses as he sat alone in court. He frequently grasped the handrail that surrounds the defendant's box and bowed his head as the judge read out the verdict.
Tuesday's proceedings, broadcast on state TV, came nearly 20 years after Aziz's meeting in Geneva with U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker failed to prevent the 1991 Gulf War. Aziz also met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican would lobby Iraq to halt the execution. He said commuting the sentence would encourage reconciliation and the rebuilding of peace and justice in Iraq.
No date has been set for the hanging, and Aziz's lawyer has 30 days to appeal the sentence handed down by a court responsible for prosecuting crimes committed by the former regime. The verdict came two months after Aziz was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody.
Aziz's lawyers accused the government of orchestrating the verdict to divert attention from recent revelations about prisoner abuse by Iraqi security forces contained in U.S. military documents released last week by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks.
"The trial was nothing short of a farce," Aziz's Italy-based lawyer, Giovanni Di Stefano, said in a statement. The Iraqi court "has sentenced Aziz to death on allegations that are frankly nothing short of malicious, capricious and nonexistent."
Aziz has already been convicted in two other cases, receiving a combined 22 years in prison. In an interview with The Associated Press this summer, Aziz predicted he would die in prison.
In the long-running case for which he received the death penalty, Aziz was accused of being part of a campaign of persecuting, killing and torturing members of the Shiite opposition and religious parties banned under Saddam. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member of one of the religious parties central to the case.
Aziz was sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking part in forced displacement, 10 years for committing torture, and death by hanging for participating in deliberate killings. The judge gave no details of Aziz's specific role.
Iraq has executed other high-profile members of Saddam's regime. When the former dictator was hanged in December 2006, onlookers taunted him as the noose slipped over his neck, raising allegations the Shiite-led government was bent on revenge.
Tuesday's verdict comes as al-Maliki tries to hold onto his job more than seven months after an inconclusive March election. The Aziz sentence may make it harder for al-Maliki to gain Sunni support but it could improve his negotiating position among fellow Shiites.
Charles Dunne, an Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute, said the verdict will strengthen the prime minister's tough image as a defender of Shiites.
"It will strengthen his anti-Baathist stand that helped him in the past since it was a strong element of his election campaign," Dunne said.
Aziz, a fluent English speaker, became internationally known as the dictator's defender and a fierce American critic first as foreign minister after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and later as a deputy prime minister.
He surrendered to U.S. forces about a month after the March 2003 invasion. He was held at an American prison in Baghdad until the U.S. handed over control of the facility in July to the Iraqi government. The Americans transferred Aziz to Iraqi custody along with dozens of other former regime figures as part of preparations for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of next year.
Five other members of the deposed regime were sentenced to death Tuesday for similar crimes.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.