As Iraq prepares to put Saddam Hussein on trial it is important to ask two questions.
First: is it the right time for such a trial to be held?
And, secondly, should it treat the fallen despot and the seven of his cohorts who would also be judged, as lone criminals or representatives of a more widely based political system?
The answer to the first question, that of timing, is complex.
Immediately after liberation, I wrote to support a speedy trial in the hope that the exercise would reveal how all sections of the Iraqi nation had suffered under the despotic regime, and thus bring the Iraqis together. Now, however, I am not so sure.
On the one hand, millions of Saddam Hussein’s victims inside and outside Iraq would be glad to see him face justice as soon as possible. On the other hand, it is important that the trial be conducted by an authority with impeccable credentials. And it is this second consideration that should make us wonder whether or not an early trial is the best option.
Setting up a kangaroo court is always easy, especially in Iraq, which has seen the televised murder-express trial shows anchored by Fadhil al-Mahdawi under Abdul-Karim Qassem and, later, the shoot-a-comrade “trials” orchestrated by Saddam Hussein himself against his rivals in the Ba’ath Party. Many Iraqis might have little problem with that kind of trial as far as Saddam Hussein is the accused. But Iraq would benefit from a trial only if and when its people can liberate themselves from the lynch-mob mentality produced by all their rulers since 1958.
As things stand now, the authority that is to try Saddam Hussein faces serious questions regarding its legitimacy. There is no doubt that the interim government of President Jalal Talabani and Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari has a democratic mandate from the overwhelming majority of the Iraqis. But Iraq would benefit more from a trial if it is conducted under the authority of the next government, to be elected in December, with the participation of the Arab Sunni minority that partly boycotted the last election in January.
Although the planned trial will be limited to a single charge, related to the massacre of 143 men, women and children in the village of Dujail in 1982, it is bound to assume a broader political context. And that could encourage Saddam Hussein to cast himself in the role of a patriot who was trying to protect the nation against its internal and external enemies.
Hussein might present himself as the champion of Arab Sunnis in Iraq, interpreting their electoral boycott as a sign of support for himself. The fact, however, is that Arab Sunnis in Iraq were as much a victim of Saddam Hussein as any other community. (In fact, as far as elite elements are concerned, Hussein was responsible for the death of more Sunni Arabs than Shiites or Kurds.)
Next, Hussein may well try to appear as the champion of the Ba’ath and its old ideals of socialism and pan-Arab unity. Right now, with al-Jaafari’s obsession with excluding all Ba’athists from the public service, such a claim may well sound convincing to some.
The fact, however, is that more Ba’athists have been killed under Hussein than under any other Iraqi ruler since 1947 when the party first arrived in Iraq. When it seized power in July 1968 the Iraqi section of the Ba’ath had an 18-man Politburo of which Hussein was a member. By 1988, however, the only one still alive and around was Saddam Hussein himself. All others had been murdered or driven into exile. In other words the Ba’ath was as much a victim of Saddam Hussein as any other Iraqi party.
The trial should take place at a time that not only Arab Sunnis but also a majority of the former Ba’athists have found a place within the new Iraq.
The earliest possible “ideal time” for the trial would be next spring, after the formation of a new government emerging from an election in which all Iraqis, including former members of the Ba’ath, have a chance to participate.
Now to the second question which concerns the political aspects of the proposed trial. The Kurdish and Shiite parties may well be in a hurry to convict Hussein and his close associates and hang them as quickly as possible.
What matters, however, is not personal and/or sectarian revenge. Iraq and, beyond it the broader Arab world where the remnants of pan-Arabism still regard Saddam Hussein as their champion, need a prolonged, dispassionate, and judicially impeccable history lesson. Those familiar with the Hussein case claim that more than 500 cases have already been lodged against him. The evidence to back those charges is said to run into almost 10 million pages and includes tens of thousands of testimonies collected over more than a quarter of a century. And that does not include the numerous other charges that Iran and Kuwait could bring against Saddam Hussein for his war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It is important of the people of the Iraq, indeed for the whole world, to know precisely how much of all this is true. It is even more important to find out why all that happened and how many people were actually involved in the crimes.
Many, including some Iraqis, are convinced that the evil of murderous despotism is inscribed in the very DNA of Iraq as a nation-state. Although that allegation has no basis in fact it is important to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the power of the state was used against the Iraqi nation rather than in the service of its just or unjust aspirations.
At the same time, however, it is important not to fall for the fiction that Hussein was supported by no more than a small clan of Takritis, often related to him by blood. In fact, Hussein murdered a lot of Takiritis as well, notably his own sons-in-law, the two Kamel al-Majid brothers. Far from being an aberration, Hussein was an archetypical figure of the modern Arab despotic regimes based on the military and the security services.
The trial should not become a settling of scores by Shiites and Kurds with Hussein. The trial would be useful only if it enables the whole of Iraq to come to terms with the most tragic period of its modern history. Only then can Iraq think of a truth and reconciliation committee to purge it of all the residual guilt in which, wittingly or unwittingly, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had a share.
A hasty hanging of Hussein will not expiate that guilt.