BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in remarks that he would not sign a death sentence against his ousted predecessor Saddam Hussein even if it costs him his job.
"Once his (Saddam's) interrogation is over, he will go before a tribunal," Talabani told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel in an interview.
Should a death sentence be issued against the former dictator, "I will not sign it," he said.
"I am a man of principles. I cannot forego my principles for the sake of my post. If there is a clash between the post and the principles, I will give up the post and keep the principles," Talabani said in a snippet aired in advance of the full interview broadcast.
Talabani said in May that he would not sign a death sentence against Saddam, whose trial on charges of crimes against humanity during his iron-fisted rule over Iraq is expected to come up within the next two months.
The Iraqi president, a vocal opponent of capital punishment, refused earlier this month to sign the first death sentences passed in Iraq since Saddam's ouster in April 2003, delegating his deputy to sign the relevant decree.
Human rights groups believe that the executions could set a precedent for sentencing when the high-profile trials of former regime figures, including Saddam, begin. Saddam is currently in US custody and held near Baghdad airport.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal filed charges against Saddam in late July over the 1982 killing of 143 residents of the village of Dujail, northeast of Baghdad, where he had been the target of a failed assassination bid.
The Iraqi government defended its decision to reinstate the death penalty despite a UN appeal for Baghdad to reconsider executing three convicted felons.
"We are faced with a reality in Iraq where people are murdering, and what we want is a sentence which punishes the hand that kills and the person who commits this crime," government spokesman Leith Kubba said last week.
UN special envoy to Iraq Ashraf Qazi had urged the government not to go ahead with the country's first executions since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam, who himself faces charges punishable by death.
Iraqi vice president Adel Abdel Mehdi had signed a decree authorising the execution of three men sentenced to death for kidnapping policemen and raping Iraqi women.
The men, suspected members of Al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sunna, were sentenced in May. The verdict was later approved by the Supreme Council for Justice, the highest judicial authority in Iraq.
The executions are due to take place in the town of Kut, 175 kilometres (110 miles) southeast of Baghdad, within the next few days.
It is not known how the government intends to carry out the executions.
During Saddam's regime, criminals used to be hanged, and disloyal soldiers faced the firing squad while other military personnel looked on.