- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Saddam Hussein is scheduled to appear before the Iraqi Special Tribunal in Baghdad in the opening session of his trial, marking the first time an Iraqi court of law will hold a brutal dictator to account for his atrocities. This is a major step along the road to democracy in Iraq. It is also a necessary component of the country’s reconstruction.

For a sense of how momentous an occasion it is, consider that since the end of the British mandate in 1932, assassinations, firing squads and firey accidents have ended the rule of all but one of Iraq’s kings and strongmen. The lone exception, the Ba’athist Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, hardly even counts; he was a Saddam cipher who grew ill and posed no threat to the regime. Other than him, one must look back 70 years to King Faisal I for an Iraqi head of state who wasn’t murdered or met a violent death while still in power.

By contrast, in what is unquestionably the kindest end his 34-year reign of terror could have met, Saddam sits in prison, reportedly tending to a garden, befriending guards and composing poetry. He will now be forced to submit to the law.

The charges require some explanation. Saddam and his henchmen will answer for the 1982 massacre of more than 100 Shi’ite civilians following a failed assassination attempt — a small fraction of the thousands of executions he and his lieutenants ordered. The charges do not speak to the Kurds gassed in their villages, the regime opponents killed for sport nor the many people slaughtered in Saddam’s three major wars. If this seems necessarily disappointing, it shouldn’t be. Prudence requires it. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague demonstrates that a conniving and intelligent dictator can railroad international prosecutors who pursue war-crimes charges or try to demonstrate crimes against humanity. Nuremberg this was not. Far more effective is a focus on specific atrocities and specific crimes.

This is a trial by Iraqis, for Iraqis, intended to solve an Iraqi problem and account for Iraqi history. Thanks to the good sense of coalition forces and the new Iraqi government, the Iraq tribunal enjoys freedom from the unrelated internationalist and legalistic ideologies that have sometimes stood in the way of a successful Milosevic prosecution.

Saddam’s trial will not be perfect, of course. Like the rest of its democracy, Iraq’s judiciary is a work in progress. It’s possible Saddam could engage in trickery and attempt to make a circus of the proceedings. But at least a trial for Saddam signifies the beginning of the end for brute force in Iraq. That is no small achievement, and should be a landmark event in Iraqi history.

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