- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The verdict and sentence in the trial against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, handed down on Sunday, serves as a timely reminder that progress is being made in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein’s trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law,” said President Bush. He could not be more right.

The day when Saddam Hussein is brought to justice is a day many Iraqis have been waiting for — ever since that December day three years ago, when Saddam was hauled out of the hole in which he was disgracefully hiding. With typical bombast Saddam demanded a glamorous and military-style firing squad, but the sentence by a five-judge panel was death by hanging, a far more ignominious fate.

Good news from Iraq, though, has been scarce in recent weeks. The stream of bad news out of Iraq on the front pages of America’s newspapers has been unrelenting, some of it surely prompted by the mid-term elections. Iraq’s ethnic militias and terrorists cleverly follow American election politics as closely as anyone, and the recent spike in violence is likely tied to events at the ballot box here. They would surely like to see Mr. Bush crippled by a Democratic Congress.

On the other hand, some journalists here lost no time accusing the administration of orchestrating the timing of the verdict to give Republicans a boost. This is an interesting suggestion given that the administration is usually accused of being Keystone Cops who can’t get anything right.

Yet, the fact that the trial happened at all and managed to sustain the legal standards of evidence it did is a testimonial to the Iraqis’ determination to see justice done. The trial is the first of its kind in the Middle East, a region where despotism is ripe. Since it began in June 2005, three defense lawyers have been killed and one judge quit over political interference.

Saddam’s antics during the trial bring to mind the antics of another dictator, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. At various times he has declared himself to be on a hunger strike and specialized in shouting matches with the presiding judge. “Take a hammer to your own head,” he once shouted back at the judge. Yet, the trial is more significant in many ways than that of Milosevic, as justice against Saddam has been administered by an Iraqi court in a proceeding conducted by his own countrymen — as opposed to justice meted out in a U.N. tribunal or victors in war, Nuremburg-style.

Saddam and three other defendants, including one of his half-brothers, were convicted of murdering 148 Shi’ite villagers after an attempt on Saddam’s life in the town of Dujail in 1982. In this case, an appeals process now moves forward, but even when that is done, other trials on behalf of Saddam’s victims await. He will be back in court on Friday for the genocide against Iraq’s Kurdish population in 1988. A dozen other cases are in line after that, further proof of the brutality of his regime.

However, if the appellate court upholds the conviction, Saddam’s sentence will be carried out within 30 days. The sooner it is carried out the better. The threats of civil war that have been coming from Sunni quarters are certainly something to be concerned about, but so far isolated protests in places like Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit are about it. As long as Saddam is still alive, there will be those hoping he could make a comeback. Of course, Saddam still insists that he is the head of state.

Now, you would have to be a very determined opponent of the death penalty not to find that this is just about as clearcut a case for its application as ever existed, but there are some who argue otherwise. British Prime Minister Tony Blair opposed the verdict as Britain does not have the death penalty, though he acknowledged that the trial “gives us a chance to see against what the past in Iraq was, the brutality, the tyranny, the hundreds of thousands of people he killed, the wars.” Likewise, the Finnish president of the European Union lost no time denouncing the death sentence.

How else one could show the respect owed to the lives of Saddam’s victims or the suffering of those he tortured is hard to see. Sunday’s verdict reminds us again of one of the crucially important reasons Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power.

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