The brightest among Saddam Hussein’s cadre may now be looking not only at the U.N. Security Council’s anxious deliberations in New York but also at the war crimes trial that are regularly taking place in The Hague.
U.S. intelligence sources say the Iraqi dictator has ordered a “scorched earth” strategy on his own soil if there is an attack. That would include destruction of Iraqi oil wells and other resources, as well as the use of chemical and biological weapons against U.S. troops.
Presumably, those steps would not be taken until the noose tightens and allied forces close in on Baghdad. And then will come the moment of truth for Baghdad’s well-tailored and immaculately groomed front men like Amir al-Saddi and Tariq Aziz. They and most of Iraq’s uniformed officers would have to carry out the atrocities, aided by scientists who control the knowledge and the secrets.
Right now, they are guilty of a “material breach” of their obligations to the United Nations. The blunter words of U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Baghdad of deception, dissembling and lying in its 12,272-page, Enron-style accounting to the United Nations of its weapons of mass destruction.
A solid case for war is being made. The likelihood is growing that major powers including that most balky of Western allies, France, and the most valuable of Muslim allies, Turkey will participate when it begins in a few weeks. Mr. Powell’s statement last week possibly the most effective from the U.S. side so far shut one of the last exit doors for Baghdad.
When the troops are at his gates, Saddam no doubt will be a desperate man. He has used up all of his chances. His two sons, who are widely suspected of being behind some of the government’s most brutal crimes, and a dozen or so more of his real goons probably already have committed crimes against humanity. Torture and unspeakable treatment of those suspected of plotting against the government, as well as their families, have been documented.
But others in that government particularly the Foreign Ministry and the elite Republican Guard may or may not be as willing to carry out crimes against humanity. These operatives could be key to how long and how brutal the war will be.
It is one thing to lie and cheat on order of Saddam. It is another matter entirely to conduct mass murder with anthrax or sarin gas at his direction.
The war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, once the strongman of Serbia, has been agonizingly slow, farcical and fussy about every last detail of the long Balkans civil war. But it, along with dozens of other proceedings by the special international tribunal at The Hague, has demonstrated that the world despite some U.S. foot-dragging has achieved a degree of consensus about the need to hold leaders responsible and to keep them from abusing their power with impunity.
There is another side to these trials: Those who have behaved decently may have a chance.
Last week, a second-level leader in the Serbian part of Bosnia, a woman named Biljana Plavsic, got something of a boost from the testimony of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Ms. Plavsic is charged with carrying out orders for ethnic cleansing and in a proceeding I had an opportunity to see in October pleaded guilty to war crimes and threw herself on the mercy of the court. Mrs. Albright said she found Ms. Plavsic’s acts repugnant, but told how she stood up for the peace accords of 1995 “when it was very difficult, when there were those who wanted to destroy the Dayton Accord.”
That dramatic testimony was scarcely noticed over here, but it was a big story in Europe. And perhaps it was observed by some of the Iraqi officials who stay tuned to the all-news Western networks.
So far, the Baghdad yes men are eager to please only Saddam. They have dumped all of his mendacious CD-ROMs and fallacious folders on the United Nations with the straightest faces this side of Madison Avenue.
But if they say “yes, sir” to anthrax, their rubber stamps, smart salutes and cries of “only following orders” won’t do them any good when they’re in the dock. For them, an hour of decision is near.
John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.