The Government expressed public support yesterday for the right of Iraqis to try Saddam Hussein in Iraq, even if this meant that he could face the death penalty.
The Government's view was given by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, at a press conference in London with leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).
Sitting alongside Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the current chairman of the IGC, Mr Straw said that it was "always preferable for any trials for war crimes to held be in the country concerned, by the people concerned".
Iraq, he said, "may make sovereign decisions with which we don't agree, and they may include the death penalty".
Mr Hakim, the brother of Ayatollah Hakim, the Shia cleric assassinated in Najaf in September, declined to say whether he or the IGC would support the death penalty, insisting: "We will do what the judge and court decide."
He said, however, that the intention was to try Saddam in an Iraqi court according to the statute on war crimes approved by the IGC last week.
He said international standards of justice had been taken into account in drawing up the statute and pledged that international observers would be invited to monitor proceedings.
Mr Straw and Mr Hakim seemed concerned not to fan the flames of an incipient dispute between Britain and the United States about whether Saddam should face execution.
Asked about Mr Bush's call for "the ultimate penalty", Mr Straw said this merely reflected a well-known difference of opinion between the two countries.
Mr Hakim and his delegation, which included the Iraqi Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, had earlier met Tony Blair at Downing Street, where the consequences of Saddam's capture were discussed, as was the need for the new Iraqi government to reflect Iraq's ethnic diversity and provide safeguards for its minorities.
Mr Talabani paid tribute to Mr Blair's support for the British military involvement. "We feel thankful for the humane and courageous attitude of the Prime Minister and Jack Straw," he said. "It was a holy mission that the US and British governments took part in."
The Iraqi leaders were in London on the latest leg of a European tour that appears designed to present them as members of a credible government-in-waiting.
The present timetable assumes that sovereignty will be transferred to Iraq by the end of June at the latest, when the US-British Coalition Provisional Authority - the civil arm of the occupation - is to be dissolved.
There has been speculation, however, that the capture of Saddam could speed up the return of sovereignty. Neither British nor Iraqi officials would comment on that possibility yesterday.