WASHINGTON — Last week, US officials announced that the ousted Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, is to be treated as an "enemy prisoner of war" (POW). A Pentagon spokesman said he was given the POW status because he was the leader of the "old regime's military forces."
POW status for Hussein means that the former Iraqi leader is eligible to stand trial for war crimes. The Geneva agreements say POWs can be tried for crimes against humanity only by an international tribunal or the occupying power, which in Iraq is the US. But the appropriate model for the trial is still in doubt. Is it the Nuremberg Tribunal, in which the four victorious nations of World War II - the US, Britain, France, and Russia - indicted 24 leaders of Nazi Germany? Is it the case of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi technocrat of death, who was kidnapped from Argentina and tried before Israeli judges in Jerusalem for his role in facilitating the Holocaust? Or is it the ongoing trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague by an international tribunal?
Whatever format is chosen to try Hussein, it must be another milestone in applying the principle of accountability. The Nuremberg trials left their mark on history because they exposed the Nazi machinery, the obedient system of evil and death. The Eichmann trial became an historical event due to the death camp survivors who came to tell their terrible stories about the gas chambers, the starvation, mass executions, torture, and "medical experiments." The trial of Milosevic is demonstrating how a single leader manipulated feelings of national identity into an engine of war that killed hundreds of thousands and disrupted the lives of millions.
The same expectations and the same premise should apply to Hussein's trial. It should be an international event that through some kind of international procedure will give worldwide exposure to the evils of Saddamism, not just of Saddam.
Such an event probably will - and should - become a "media event." Media events - including the funerals of President Kennedy and Lord Mountbatten, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, the journeys of Pope John Paul II to Communist Europe and Anwar Sadat to Israel, the preelection debates of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the Watergate hearings in Congress, the revolutionary events of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and the Olympic Games - are broadcast live and attract large audiences. These media events bind the world in a common experience, in a manner impossible before the era of electronic communication.
However, unlike the Eichmann and the Milosevic trials that exposed crimes perpetrated by a strong nation or ethnic group against a weak one, Hussein's trial will expose crimes perpetrated by a dictatorial regime against its own countrymen and coreligionists. As far as is known now, Hussein's murder machine executed Nazi-style between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds, many of them noncombatants. It also executed tens of thousands of Shiites accused of opposition to the government. Furthermore, Hussein's regime executed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Sunni Arab Iraqis, some of them very prominent.
If properly handled, the accusations, evidence, and testimony would become, through the mass media, lessons for future generations. Further, even though in many cases it will be impossible to prove that Hussein knew of the atrocities performed in his name, let alone ordered them, the evils of the system he devised will be exposed through evidence given by his victims. This will achieve two goals. On the purely legal level it will provide evidence that will be used to charge Hussein for command responsibility - the perpetrators were under his command, and as their chief he is responsible for their crimes. No less important in having the crimes exposed and discussed is the catharsis it will offer the Iraqi people, who were held hostage for 30 years. It could help end the revenge killings taking place now all over Iraq.
Some argue that the trial may give Hussein a stage to criticize the Americans for their past support of his regime and questioning the necessity of attacking him. While he should be able to defend himself, Hussein should not be allowed to hijack the trial as Milosevic is doing.
Hussein and his regime represent an evil system and should be prosecuted in a manner similar to the trials of other evil systems: not in a court that will be open to accusations that it seeks revenge but in an international process devoted to exposing and documenting the evils of Saddamism.
While there may be no doubt that there are Iraqi judges competent enough to try him, two things may prove helpful in that respect.
First, the Iraqi court should ask the international community for technical support, advisers, and observers.
Second, Hussein's paternal cousin, Ali Hasan al-Majid - "Chemical Ali" - should be the first tried. His trial will be relatively simple: The direct evidence, in written documents and in photographs, of his crimes is overwhelming. This will provide the court with experience and credibility.
This way the Arab and Muslim world will be exposed to the true face of a man and a regime that some of them still regard as heroic because they confronted the US.
Such a process will carry the message, the lessons and the shock waves to wider circles in space and time.
• Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Gabriel Weimann, professor of mass communication at the University of Haifa, are senior fellows at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.