aziz - AP - October 26, 2010.
Tariq Aziz, former Iraqi foreign minister and deputy prime minister, September 5, 2010. Photo by AP
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Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says he won't sign off on a death penalty sentence against Tarik Aziz, seen by many as the international face of Saddam Hussein's government.

"I cannot sign an order of this kind because I am a Socialist," Talabani told France 24 TV, in an interview aired Wednesday. "I feel compassion for Tarik Aziz because he is a Christian, an Iraqi Christian."

"In addition, he is an elderly man - aged over 70 - and this is why I will never sign this order," Talabani said in Arabic through a translator.

The 74-year-old Aziz was the highest-ranking Christian in Saddam Hussein's inner circle. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging on Oct. 26 for his role in persecuting members of the Shiite religious parties that now dominate the country.

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.

The death sentence came two months after Aziz was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody. Under Iraqi law, Aziz had 30 days to appeal the death sentence Aziz's supporters have argued that he was not responsible for the crimes he's accused of but is being persecuted simply because he was a member of Saddam's regime.

The pursuit of criminal cases against former members of Saddam's regime demonstrates the deep hatred that exists even today among the country's current Shiite leadership and within the Shiite population as well.

Although Aziz was not Sunni, his death sentence as well as the death sentences against other figures of Saddam's regime is seen as a form of persecution against the country's Sunni minority.

Some Western officials including Italy's foreign minister have urged Iraq to call off the death penalty for Aziz.

Talabani was speaking in Paris, where he attended a meeting of the Socialist International this week.