Hussein: from pedestal to tribunal

Iraqi leaders say an Iraqi court will try Hussein for his brutal regime, but the process could prove complicated.

In the end the tyrant from Tikrit was found in a hideout hole in the ground, just outside the Iraqi city from which he rose to power.

In Iraq and the Middle East, awareness of the state to which one of the most fearsome and bloody dictators of the 20th century was reduced when he was captured is important. It will further the job of pulling Saddam Hussein from his pedestal - a process that began when his statues were tumbled last April.

But now that Saddam Hussein is in American military hands, the crucial task of his demythification will be completed only with a tribunal that will try him for the crimes attributed to him.

That trial will seek to render some sense of justice to the Iraqi people who suffered under his rule for more than 30 years. Although US officials in Iraq said Sunday the specifics of bringing Mr. Hussein to justice were only starting to be worked out, Iraqi leaders said Hussein would be tried in an Iraqi court - perhaps in the court just created last week by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to handle the crimes of the former regime.

Adnan Pachachi, who holds the IGC's revolving presidency this month, says an Iraqi civilian court will try Hussein for crimes against humanity and war crimes. He and other Iraqi leaders characterized the trial as "showing the world the democracy and freedom of the new Iraq," and that it would not be a trial for revenge, but a "just trial."

Even given Hussein's global reputation for cruelty, it will be crucial for Iraq's future and for the historical value of the trial that it be perceived in Iraq and the region as fair, experts say. A trial presents certain pitfalls as well, in particular for the US. For starters, there's the tricky question of how to treat America's former ties with the dictator it eventually deposed.

Still, a trial will serve the important purpose of reminding both Iraqis and the world of what Hussein was in Iraq, in the region, and in the pantheon of 20th century dictators. "Even in a region where competition is particularly tough for how terrible and brutal a dictator can be, Saddam ruled supreme at the top of the list," says Bruce Jentleson, a Middle East expert at Duke University.

Hussein will be remembered for gruesome acts against his own people, from the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s to more recent attempts at genocide of Iraqi Shiites in the country's southern marshes. But many experts say Hussein stands out for two defining aspects of his rule: his longevity as either the power behind the scenes or the autocratic ruler in Iraq, and the particularly vindictive and personal nature of his cruelty. Hussein was officially in power from 1979, when he became president, but his de facto rule began with the rise of the Baath Party to power in 1968. He was a hands-on tyrant like few others.

To illustrate this trait, a story is told in the Middle East comparing Hussein to Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian dictator. If Mr. Assad had a troublesome political opponent, the story goes, he would send him up in a helicopter to be pushed out. In the same situation, Hussein would go up in the helicopter and do the pushing himself. "Even if apocryphal," says Jentleson, "the story gives a clear picture of how Saddam was seen in the region and what defined him."

Having Hussein face trial in Iraq offers the United States an opportunity to shift the focus away from its armed intervention in the country toward an emphasis on the ruthlessness of the former regime. There is no shortage of witnesses or of documentary evidence of the brutal efficiency with which Hussein ruled Iraq for over two decades.

But legal analysts warn that it won't be easy guaranteeing Hussein a trial recognized in the Arab and Muslim worlds as being fair and just. "Aside from the question of his guilt which hardly anybody has any doubt about, there are all sorts of people who would be skeptical, particularly if America's fingerprints are seen all over his trial," says Detlev Vagts, an international law expert at Harvard Law School.

Coalition officials have indicated that Hussein will face trial in an Iraqi court with Iraqi judges. But major questions remain unresolved. Will Hussein be allowed to assemble a team of skilled defense lawyers? Who will preside over what may soon be billed as the "Mother of All Trials?"

Residents of Iraq with sufficient legal skills may have longstanding ties to the old regime. Others have just arrived from exile and may be viewed with suspicion by Iraqis.

One danger is making an assumption that everything that happened in Iraq during Hussein's government was something he can be held responsible for. "It may be hard to prove that," says Vagts. He says prosecutors may seek to hold Hussein responsible for the chemical attack on the Kurdish village of Halabjah in March 1988. But to do that convincingly in a court of law will require evidence. Such evidence may not exist. "They have never found a piece of paper from Adolf Hitler ordering the annihilation of the Jews."

To tie Hussein to such atrocities, analysts say, may require cutting plea bargains with some of Hussein's top officials to convince them to turn against their former boss.

Another potential danger is that Hussein seeks to use his trial to turn the tables on the US and others who at one point were his allies during the Iran-Iraq war. "He could embarrass all sorts of people if he wanted to go down with all guns firing," says Vagts.

Still, a trial "will satisfy many people, many victims," says Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister. He says the coming judicial process "will be transparent, will be just, will be open." Speaking with CNN from Paris, Mr. Zebari also said it was possible the trial could move to "the international arena."

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