President George Bush said Saddam Hussein deserved the "ultimate penalty" for his crimes putting the United States sharply at odds with Europe, the United Nations and other countries which adamantly oppose the death penalty.
A day after saying his own views about Saddam's fate were unimportant, President Bush decided to step forward and publicly state his opinion, a position that could carry considerable influence in determining the punishment of the deposed Iraqi leader.
"Let's just see what penalty he gets, but I think he ought to receive the ultimate penalty ... for what he has done to his people," President Bush said last nioht. "I mean, he is a torturer, a murderer, they had rape rooms. This is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice."
He made his comments in an interview with ABC News.
Even while expressing his views, the President said Saddam's punishment "will be decided not by the president of the United States but by the citizens of Iraq in one form or another."
He said he doesn't see a need for an American role in Saddam's trial, a process that Iraqis are "plenty capable of conducting."
The President distanced himself from possible interrogation methods used to elicit information from Saddam, other than to say that "this country doesn't torture."
Mr Bush has long been a proponent of capital punishment. During his six years as governor of Texas, 152 convicts were put to death.
In the case of Saddam, the death penalty issue could cause friction between the United States and Europe. All 15 member nations of the European Union have abolished capital punishment, and they often encourage other countries — most notably the United States — to abolish it.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also has said the world body would not support bringing Saddam before a tribunal that might sentence him to death.
Tony Blair said that although Britain opposed the death penalty, it would have to accept an Iraqi decision to execute.
Interrogators completed a third day of questioning Saddam in an attempt to build on information about anti-American resistance networks gleaned from documents kept by the captured former dictator.
Saddam - who is in detention at an undisclosed location but believed to be in Iraq - has provided little of much use, American officials said. He has again denied that his regime had links with international terrorism, and repeated that the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were the ostensible reason for the US-led invasion in March do not exist.
That second claim is exactly as Baghdad insisted in the months and weeks before the war, and supports what senior Iraqi officials already in custody have told investigators. Despite the failure to come up with anything more than fragmented evidence of WMD programmes, President Bush's administration maintains that alone is proof that Saddam was in breach of his obligations to the United Nations.
The initial questioning has focused on establishing what, if anything, Saddam knows about the guerrilla insurgency against the US occupation, in the hope of preventing attacks. But he has apparently provided relatively little information. No communications equipment was found with Saddam when he was caught on Saturday evening, and US intelligence believes that he is unlikely to have had day-to-day control over the guerrillas.
But the documents have been of value. They run to about 500 pages, and include passages from the Koran and personal notes. But they also contained information that has enabled US forces to capture some middle-level figures from the Baath regime, including a major-general in the dissolved Iraqi army.
US officials believe that these arrests could disrupt planned attacks against US troops, foreigners and Iraqis perceived as collaborating with the Allied forces. The arrests might also bring the US closer to its top target among former regime figures still at large, such as Saddam's former right hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
Al-Douri, the sixth-ranking figure on the Pentagon's most-wanted list, is believed to be a key organiser of the resistance, in which almost 200 American troops have been killed since President Bush declared the end of "major combat operations" on 1 May.
US officials yesterday sounded confident that interrogators armed with detailed psychological profiles, information from other prisoners and techniques such as sleep deprivation, will crack Saddam's resistance. Whether he will be truthful, they admit, is quite another matter. Mr Bush invariably calls Saddam a "deceiver and a liar" whose word in captivity will be no more trustworthy than when he was in power. One US official said he had behaved like a "wise-ass" in early questioning.
But already a few loose ends of history are being tied up. Saddam reportedly has denied that his regime was still holding Kuwaitis taken hostage during the 1991 Gulf war.
He has also denied that Scott Speicher, the US Navy pilot whose plane was shot down on 17 January 1991, the first night of the air war in Operation Desert Storm, had been held by the regime. Although debris from the aircraft was discovered, Lt Speicher's body was never found. In 2001 the Pentagon changed his classification from Killed in Action (KIA) to Missing in Action (MIA), amid suggestions he might have been captured and subsequently executed in an Iraqi jail.
In the meantime, debate is intensifying over how and by whom the deposed dictator will be tried. Agreement is emerging that the tribunal should be mainly run by Iraqis. A model could be the Sierra Leone trials of individuals accused of atrocities, conducted by judges from Sierra Leone, but with UN and international advisers.