- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

You’d hardly know it from the lack of coverage, but yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s capture by coalition forces. On Dec. 13, 2003, American troops found a disheveled and babbling Saddam huddled in a hole a few miles from his native Tikrit, reportedly happy to surrender and talkative with his U.S. captors. He had been on the lam for nearly nine months.

Finding Saddam in a pile of debris down a dirty airshaft was a landmark accomplishment. Capture served a first order of justice to Saddam, something history had all too often spared for even the cruelest of dictators, like Cambodia’s Pol Pot, who lived out his last days in hiding, or Adolf Hitler, who spared himself trial and execution by taking his own life. “I find it very interesting that when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it,” President Bush said in response to Saddam’s capture. “The world is better off without you.”

Real justice for Saddam will come before a court of law. Upon his capture, U.S. officials pledged an eventual hand-over of Saddam to Iraqi officials for trial. Mr. Bush made headlines by pledging that Saddam would be tried in Iraq, not in The Hague or in the International Criminal Court. “There needs to be a public trial,” he said. “All the atrocities need to come out, and justice needs to be delivered,” he continued, but even as he insisted on Iraqi justice for Saddam, he was clear to nod toward international standards of justice. “We will work with the Iraqis to develop a way to try him that will stand international scrutiny,” he said. Perhaps after the January elections and a new Iraqi government takes office, the time will be right to bring Saddam to account for his atrocities. Recent reports on Iraq’s judicial system show less progress than might be desired but its courts are, as is Iraqi democracy generally, a work in progress.

Europeans and some on the American left were appalled that the president would want to put Mr. Hussein on trial domestically. But Mr. Bush was right to ignore their calls. Saddam’s crimes not only hit Iraqis the hardest, but ultimately matter most for Iraqis. It is Iraqis whose national life will suffer or benefit from a proper disposal of the dictator, not Europeans. Iraqis deserve the right to exorcise themselves of Saddam’s brutal rule more than Europeans need another offering on the altar of international law.

No one in the West knows for certain whether Iraqis want to try Saddam themselves, since our leading polls in Iraq don’t even bother to ask the question. But it seems likely that given the opportunity and training to do it properly, they would. Oxford Research International’s June 2004 survey of Iraqis public opinion, the most-cited such study, failed to ask the question, as did a recent study by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based foreign-affairs group affiliated with the GOP. But ORI’s study gives some hints as to the answer. Asked the open-ended question of who they trusted the most, about 1 percent of Iraqis listed Mr. Hussein. Asked which party they would never vote for again, nearly half of Iraqis cited Saddam’s Ba’ath party. Saddam would be in the gallows if it were up to Iraqis.

Saddam’s trial will be long and arduous. But we owe Iraqis a full accounting of his regime’s murderous record. After the elections, let us hope the proceedings can get underway.

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