Leading article: A war that has made a martyr out of a tyrant

By the time Saddam Hussein had been tried and condemned, there were surely few who still believed that his execution would solve anything. The security situation had already deteriorated too far; sectarian conflict was rampant, and the new Iraqi police force was hopelessly infiltrated. What seems not to have been anticipated, however, was the extent to which Saddam's death could actually make matters worse.

True, members of Iraqi's Sunni minority were always going to protest about what they saw as "victor's justice". And it was regrettable that Saddam was not handed over to an international court for trial. But it was not just Iraq's Sunnis who regarded the trial to be deeply flawed; international human rights organisations and many legal specialists did, too.

Nor does the fact that the death penalty was probably inevitable from the time Saddam was captured make its imposition any more acceptable to those, such as this newspaper, who oppose the death penalty. There was a chance here for Iraq's new leaders to demonstrate that they embraced new values. Unfortunately, this is a chance that was lost. The number of court-ordered executions is mounting by the day.

As the still-gathering storm around Saddam's execution testifies, however, what took place at dawn on Saturday was far from the clinical, judicially sanctioned death the first, official footage suggested. We now know that the procedure was undisciplined and at times chaotic. The Iraqi authorities proved incapable of imposing order, even at this crucial time and in this tiny space. Not only was Saddam taunted by his guards even as the noose was placed over his head, but the insults were recorded and beamed around the world.

The truth threatens the worst of every possible world. It has embarrassed and perhaps further destabilised, Iraq's rocky government, whose world-weary Prime Minister said yesterday that he regretted accepting the job. The country's national security adviser offered the hardly consoling explanation that the team of Interior Ministry hangmen had been "infiltrated by militias", and that the video had been leaked in order to harm national reconciliation. Whether or not this was the intention, it will surely be the result. If Iraq's government cannot control even so sensitive an event as this, what shred of its authority remains?

The truth has also discomfited the US administration, which is still trying to shore up the government of Nouri al-Maliki, while fending off growing anti-war sentiment at home. It judged the situation so delicate that it put up a US general to dissociate the US authorities from the execution and assert that, if they had been in charge, they would have "done it differently".

At least President Bush - an unflinching proponent of the death penalty, who went to war with the objective of "regime-change" - is spared the contortions of the British government. Here, the only honourable note so far has been sounded by the Deputy Prime Minister, who described the handling of Saddam's execution as "quite deplorable". The Foreign Secretary, speaking - we are told - for the Government, has tried to square the circle between supporting the prosecution of the war and condemning the hanging of Saddam. The silence from the Prime Minister has been deafening - and disgraceful.

The most dangerous aspect of the execution, though, is not the embarrassment it has caused to three governments, but how it has achieved the seemingly impossible - to make an erstwhile dictator look better than his executioners. What sort of Iraq has this military adventure begotten, if it is one in which Saddam Hussein is perceived as a martyr?