As of Thursday, at least 3,880 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Baghdad Iraq's prime minister has appealed to President Bush to hand over Saddam Hussein's cousin, known as "Chemical Ali," and two other former regime officials sentenced to hang for a 1980s crackdown against Kurds, two government officials said Thursday.
The formal request from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatened to strain relations with U.S. officials - who have refused to surrender the men - and incite a backlash from Sunni Arabs as sectarian violence is ebbing.
Sunni leaders have led a campaign to spare the life of one of the condemned men, former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie, who is widely viewed by Sunnis as a respected career soldier who was forced to follow Saddam's orders in the 1986-88 purges against Kurds.
Although there is little outcry for leniency against the others - including Ali Hassan al-Majid, nicknamed "Chemical Ali" for ordering poison gas attacks - the U.S. military has refused to relinquish control of all three. The third is Hussein Rashid Mohammed, an ex-deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces.
They were convicted in June of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their part in the Operation Anfal crackdown that killed nearly 200,000 Kurdish civilians and guerrillas. An appeals court upheld the verdict in September. Under Iraqi law, the executions were to have taken place within a month.
Now, their execution date is indefinitely on hold in response to a struggle between al-Maliki and the Sunni vice president over whether to commute the death sentence for al-Taie.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also a Sunni, say al-Taie's life should be spared in a gesture of national reconciliation.
American officials have balked at handing the men over until the Iraqi leadership resolves the dispute.
Al-Maliki's letter to Bush - which the two Iraqi government officials said was given to the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday - demanded they be handed over to Iraqi custody immediately.
The officials, both of whom had seen the letter, spoke on condition of anonymity because its contents were not public. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo would not say whether such a letter had been sent: "We don't normally discuss the contents of diplomatic communications."
In the letter, al-Maliki accused unnamed politicians of interfering in the legal process for personal reasons and insisted Talabani and the Sunni politicians had no right under Iraqi law to pardon or ease the sentences of people convicted of crimes against humanity.
Al-Maliki said his government had promised Iraqis that their judiciary was independent, and that a U.S. refusal to hand over the condemned men suggested influence by Washington.
'Legal problems involved'
Earlier this month, U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip J. Reeker said the men would remain in American custody until the government reached a "consensus as to what their law requires."
Salim Abdullah, a lawmaker from al-Hashemi's Iraqi Islamic Party and also the spokesman for the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, said there was no objection to sending al-Majid to the gallows. Abdullah said he knew nothing about the letter to Bush, but criticized al-Maliki.
"The prime minister realizes that there are legal problems involved in this issue, which is also linked to efforts to achieve national reconciliation," Abdullah said. "He wants to appear as the upholder of the law and cast others as the law breakers."
Al-Taie, the ex-official whose death sentence prompted the dispute, is a Sunni Arab who signed the ceasefire with U.S.-led forces that ended the 1991 Gulf War.