Blair fails to condemn hanging as Bush ducks the question

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Indy Politics

Downing Street has welcomed the Iraqi government's decision to hold an inquiry into the fiasco over the execution of Saddam Hussein and admitted that mistakes had been made.

But No 10 declined to endorse comments by John Prescott who said the unauthorised filming and taunting of the former Iraqi dictator by guards who told him to "go to hell" was "deplorable" and that those responsible should be "ashamed." A spokeswoman said the Deputy Prime Minister was giving his "personal" view.

When he returns from his holiday in Miami, Mr Blair will come under pressure to condemn the way Saddam was executed last Saturday. He has so far avoided any public comment.

Yesterday George Bush ­ who said he had not seen the illicit video of the hanging because he was focused on the "way forward" in Iraq ­ dodged questions about the execution as the Americans sought to distance themselves from the way it was handled. Major General William Caldwell said in Baghdad that the US would have carried it out "differently" and did not play a role in the proceedings. "If you're asking me, would we have done things differently, yes, we would have," he said. "But that's not our decision. That's a government of Iraq decision."

He said a US military team only transported Saddam to the site of his execution, and the Iraqi government maintained custody of the former leader throughout. After delivering Saddam to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice's As-Buratha prison, American personnel "withdrew from the building, back from the whole location", he added.

In Britain, MPs believe the controversy risks turning Saddam into a martyr. His execution is sensitive for Mr Blair because the Government opposes the death penalty. Downing Street declined to say whether Britain would back Italian calls for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment via the United Nations but reaffirmed the Government's opposition to it.

The spokeswoman said: "The Iraqi government is going to conduct an inquiry into the manner in which the execution was conducted. We fully support that decision and believe it is the right thing to do. As they have said, there were obviously things that went wrong."

She insisted that Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, had spoken on behalf of the whole Government by saying the UK was against the death penalty but that Saddam had been "held to account".

No 10 backed Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, who said in an interview that he would not seek a second term and wished he could leave office before his four-year term is up and would not run again. "I didn't want to take this position," Mr Maliki told the Wall Street Journal. "I only agreed because I thought it would serve the national interest, and I will not accept it again."

Amnesty International warned that Saddam's execution was just one of a fast-rising number in Iraq, claiming at least 54 were carried out last year. Tim Hancock, its UK campaigns director, said: "Iraq had a chance to turn its back on the cruelty of the Saddam years and respect human rights, pursuing real justice with fair trials and humane punishment of those found guilty."

Iraqi authorities have not yet set a date to hang Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, and a former judge, Awad al-Bander, convicted with him for crimes against humanity.