President Jalal Talabani said on Wednesday he would never sign former deputy premier Tareq Aziz's execution order, stressing it was time to turn the page on Iraq's history of capital punishment.
"No, I will not sign this kind of order because I am a socialist," Talabani told France 24 television in an interview.
"I feel for Tareq Aziz, because he's an Iraqi Christian, and he's also an elderly person, over 70 years old. That's why I will never sign this execution order."
Aziz was handed the death penalty on October 26 for the suppression of Shiite religious parties in the 1980s, and is also on trial for a crackdown on Iraqi Kurds, of which Talabani is one.
Iraq's supreme criminal court found the long-time international face of former president Saddam Hussein's regime guilty of "deliberate murder and crimes against humanity," sentencing him to death.
The verdict provoked a wave of appeals for clemency from around the world, including from rights groups, the European Union, Russia and the Vatican.
Aged 74, in poor health and among Saddam's few surviving top cohorts, Aziz has been in prison since surrendering in April 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad in the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The court also sentenced Aziz to 15 years imprisonment for "committing torture" and 10 years for "participating in torture," and ordered that all of his known wealth be confiscated.
Two other men received the death sentence at the same time as Aziz -- former interior minister Saadoun Shaker and Abid Hmoud, an aide to Saddam.
All three were sentenced for their role in the crackdown on Shiites, but the urbane Aziz was by far the most prominent figure.
Named foreign minister in 1983 and then deputy prime minister in 1991, Aziz exploited his mastery of English to put a gloss on Saddam's murderous regime for two decades.
Ratifying the death sentence is one of the prerogatives of Iraq's head of state, as stipulated in article 73 of the constitution. Talabani refusal's to sign the death warrant should therefore allow Aziz to escape execution.
The Iraqi president, who was reappointed on Wednesday in a power-sharing pact that ended more than eight months of political paralysis, has previously said he is generally against capital punishment.
During his first term, he declined to confirm some court execution orders but without preventing the hangings going ahead as the two vice presidents at the time, a Shiite and a Sunni, were able to authorise them in his place.
But their mandate has not been renewed.
Aziz was the latest member of Saddam's fallen regime to be ordered to die, but Talabani said it was time to turn the page on the punishment, barring for some sectarian crimes.
"I think that the page of executions needs to be turned, except concerning the crimes committed at the cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and crimes against Shiite pilgrims and holy sites," he said.
At least 46 hostages, including two priests, were killed during a hostage drama with Al-Qaeda gunmen in Baghdad's Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Catholic cathedral during Sunday mass on October 31.
Greek President Carolos Papoulias called in October on Talabani to intervene to prevent the execution going ahead.
"Such a gesture would be greatly appreciated by Iraq's friends in the European Union and internationally, and highlight the difference between the country's democratic present and its past," Papoulias said.
Under Iraqi law, death sentences must be carried out within 30 days of being confirmed by the highest court in the land.