Tetchy Blair on the defensive over hanging of Saddam

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has said he does not want Saddam Hussein to the face the death penalty but declined to criticise the decision by an Iraqi court to hang the former dictator.

At his monthly news conference, the Prime Minister initially tried to dodge questions about whether the former Iraqi dictator should be executed. His reaction to what could have been a landmark moment in the Iraq conflict was muted because of the continuing turmoil in Iraq.

Mr Blair was on the defensive over the gap between the sentence of the Iraqi authorities and his Government's opposition to capital punishment. After trying to hide behind the words of Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, a tetchy Mr Blair told reporters: "That is just enough, thank you very much. I happen to want to express myself in my own way if you don't mind." Eventually, he said: "We are against the death penalty, whether it's Saddam or anybody else."

He said Saddam's brutal regime did not change the Government's position on the death penalty but provided a reminder of "the brutality, the tyranny, the hundreds of thousands of people that he killed, the wars in which there were a million casualties".

Mr Blair added: "It also then helps point the way to the only future which, for all the challenges, is the one that Iraqi people want and is worth fighting for, which is a non-sectarian Iraq in which people from different communities live together and decide their future through democracy."

Mr Blair insisted that there were "grounds for optimism", he added: "We will stay the course and finish the job." But he said that the strategy was to withdraw when Iraq was able to handle its own affairs.

Later Downing Street stopped short of joining pleas by France and Italy to urge the Iraqi authorities not to execute Saddam.

Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, who had lunch with Mr Blair at Number 10 yesterday, said: "Italy is against the death penalty. So even in such a dramatic case as Saddam Hussein we still think the death penalty must not be put into action."

Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, said France and the EU were opposed to the death penalty and wanted to see it abolished worldwide. "So for purely ethical reasons, Saddam Hussein should not suffer the death penalty," he said. "But above all, you also have to think that the situation in Iraq is excessively worrying and we are on the brink of civil war."

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We are opposed to the death penalty wherever it is. We have stated that many times. At the same time, what you have to recognise is that Iraq is a sovereign country and the court's decision there is not our business. It is Iraq's business."

* The families of two teenage soldiers killed in Iraq went to the High Court yesterday in an attempt to get a public inquiry into the legality of the war. A judge dismissed the families' demand for an inquiry last year but, in July, the Court of Appeal allowed them to challenge the ruling. The appellate judges told the families, however, that they would face " formidable hurdles" to establish their case.