updated 8/17/2005 9:09:25 AM ET 2005-08-17T13:09:25

President Jalal Talabani has paved the way for the first legal execution in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, the presidential office said Wednesday. The case involves three men sentenced to hang for murdering three policemen.

Any death sentence must be approved by the three-member presidential council headed by Talabani, who has voiced opposition to capital punishment in the past. He still refuses to sign the authorization document, but his office said he had authorized one of his vice presidents, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to do so instead.

Abdul-Mahdi signed the order but it was unclear if the sentence had been carried out. Executions in Iraq are by hanging.

The three Iraqis were not identified. But the statement said they were convicted by a court in the Shiite city of Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, for killing three police officers.

The statement said they also had been found guilty of kidnapping and rape.

So far, 10 people, including a woman, have been sentenced to death by courts in Kut, the city’s police commander Maj. Gen. Abdul Hanin Hmud said. The case of the three killers is the first to reach Talabani’s office.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told reporters Tuesday that “a fair death sentence will be carried out soon in Kut.” He did not elaborate.

The U.S.-led administration that ran Iraq after the fall of Saddam abolished capital punishment. Iraqi authorities reinstated the death penalty after the formal end of the occupation in June 2004.

Iraqi officials say Saddam faces execution if he is convicted of crimes committed by his regime during a series of trials expected to start this fall. European Union countries have distanced themselves from legal proceedings against Saddam, refusing to provide forensic and other assistance, because they oppose capital punishment.

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