updated 9/1/2005 10:46:36 AM ET 2005-09-01T14:46:36

Iraq hanged three convicted murderers Thursday, the first executions since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, the government said.

Iraqi authorities reinstated the death penalty after the end of the U.S.-led occupation in June 2004 so they would have the option of executing Saddam Hussein if he is convicted of crimes committed by his regime. Saddam is expected to stand trial soon after the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, an official said Thursday.

“At 10 a.m. in Baghdad, the first executions were carried out since the fall of the regime, against three criminals,” spokesman Laith Kubba said.

The government announced Aug. 17 that the three had been sentenced to death after having been convicted in May by a court in the Shiite city of Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.

'Difficult decision'
The government statement said they were convicted of killing three police officers, kidnapping and rape. Kubba said the men were hanged.

“It was a difficult decision because we are living in a democratic atmosphere,” Kubba said. “This is the highest punishment taken against people who have conducted assassinations, and it aims at deterring criminals from going too far in their crimes.”

Iraqi officials say about seven other people, including one woman, have been sentenced to death but their cases are still under review or appeal.

Death sentences must be approved by the three-member presidential council headed by President Jalal Talabani, who opposes capital punishment. Talabani refused to sign the authorization himself but his office said he had authorized one of his vice presidents, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to do so for him.

The U.S.-led occupation authority abolished capital punishment after Saddam’s regime collapsed during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but the decision was reversed when U.S. legal control ended in June 2004.

Saddam to go on trial
Iraqi officials said at the time that capital punishment was reinstated so that Saddam could be executed. The first trial of the ousted leader is expected to begin shortly after the referendum on the constitution, an official of the Iraqi Special Tribunal said Thursday.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to make the formal announcement. Saddam’s first trial will focus entirely on the alleged massacre of Shiites in the town of Dujail in 1982.

Separate trials for other alleged crimes, including the gassing of the Kurds and the 1991 suppression of the Shiite uprising in the south, will be held later, officials said.

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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