A great mystery since the 1991 Gulf War has been why the US never arranged for an international indictment of Saddam Hussein for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
All the many atrocities committed by the Iraqi government against its own citizens and others, such as the invasion of Kuwait, have been well-documented by various groups. But now, only on the verge of a second war against the Iraqi leader, is the US finally preparing a legal case against Mr. Hussein and his top officials, half of whom are his relatives.
Such a legal case could also add to the moral case for ousting Mr. Hussein, beyond the US desire to eliminate Iraqi chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons. President Bush may soon need to present a strong reminder of Iraq's past atrocities in case he can't win a mandate for war from the UN Security Council.
But the Bush administration is well beyond its debate with Council members France and Russia over a war mandate and plans a trial of Hussein and associates as a tactical tool for both the war and the postwar period.
During a war, a US threat of indictment may persuade top Iraqi officials not to use weapons of mass destruction if ordered to do so. After the war, the Bush administration plans to hold a hybrid domestic-international trial of Hussein and his lieutenants in a "free Iraq" as a way to win over the Iraqi people as well as to showcase his atrocities to the Arab world.
A similar tactic was used against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He was indicted for crimes against humanity in 1999 during NATO's bombing of Serbia, giving that military action the credibility it lacked without a UN mandate.
For Iraq, sending a signal now that Hussein is an illegitimate leader may even help avoid war if, by chance, the Iraqi people oust him themselves.
Cornering Hussein by legal and moral means, coming way too late, will at least help reinforce the need for all nations to abide by the rule of law.