By Gwynne Dyer
If they had taken Adolf Hitler alive in 1945, they would certainly have put him on trial. But what if they had ignored Hitlerâ€™s responsibility for starting the Second World War and his murder of six million Jews, and simply put him on trial for torturing and executing a couple of hundred people whom he suspected of involvement in the July 1944 plot to kill him? You would find that bizarre, would you not?
Well, Saddam Husseinâ€™s trial starts on 19 October, and that is the sort of charge that the Iraqi government and its American supervisors have chosen.
The former Iraqi dictator is not being tried for invading Iran in 1980 and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, nor for using poison gas on Iranian troops and on rebellious Kurds in Iraq itself (notably at Halabja in 1988, when at least 5,000 Iraqi Kurd civilians died), nor for invading Kuwait in 1990, nor for slaughtering tens of thousands of Iraqi Shias in the course of putting down the revolt that followed his defeat in that war.
He is only being tried for the deaths of 143 people from the mainly Shia town of Dujail, north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt against him during a visit to that town in July, 1982. It is a very peculiar choice, and the explanation offered by one of the five judges on the Iraqi Special Tribunal â€“ â€œThe Dujail case is the easiest to put together as far as evidence-gathering and preparation is concerned, (because) there are documents that have been seized and verified concerning the caseâ€ â€“ doesnâ€™t hold water.
The United States seized ALL the documents concerning ALL of Saddamâ€™s abuses during its invasion of Iraq two and a half years ago. It also has at least half of Saddamâ€™s former senior ministers and generals in its prisons, and could easily find many who would give evidence against him in return for clemency for themselves. If Washington wanted to see Saddam tried for his truly monstrous crimes, then that would happen. But it probably wonâ€™t.
The real problem is that the United States was closely allied to Saddam Hussein when he was committing the worst atrocities against the Iranians and the Kurds. The Reagan administration saw the revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran as a far greater threat to US interests, and when Saddamâ€™s war against Iran started going badly it stepped in to save him.
It was US intelligence photos from satellite and AWACS reconnaissance that provided the raw information about Iranian positions, and US Air Force photo interpreters seconded to Baghdad who drew Saddam the detailed maps of Iranian trenches that let him drench them in poison gas. It was the Reagan administration that stopped Congress from condemning Saddamâ€™s use of poison gas, and that encouraged American firms and NATO allies to sell him the appropriate chemical feedstocks plus a wide variety of other weapons.
It was the US State Department that tried to protect Saddam when he gassed his own Kurdish citizens in Halabja in 1988, spreading stories (which it knew to be false) that Iranian planes had dropped the gas. It was the US that finally saved Saddamâ€™s regime by providing escorts for tankers carrying oil from Arab Gulf states while Iraqi planes were left free to attack tankers coming from Iranian ports. Even when one of Saddamâ€™s planes mistakenly attacked an American destroyer in 1987, killing 37 crew-members, Washington forgave him. So the US doesnâ€™t want any of Saddamâ€™s crimes that are connected with the Iran war to come up in his trial.
His invasion of Kuwait in 1990 is equally problematic, because it was Washington that urged Iraqâ€™s Shias and Kurds to rebel after Saddam lost that war â€“ and the subsequent massacres happened because George H.W. Bush, father of the current president, would not commit US troops to stop them.
Dujail, on the other hand, raises no awkward questions, so Saddam will be tried on that charge first. It is unlikely that he will ever face other charges, for the death penalty was reintroduced in Iraq last year â€“ the first prisoners were executed just last month â€“ and once Saddam has been condemned to death for the Dujail killings he will not live long. The new law allows him only one appeal, and after that he must be hanged within thirty days.
There are other problems with Saddamâ€™s trial. The judgesâ€™ identity is secret, Iraqâ€™s current US-backed president has already declared him guilty, and his defence lawyers have had little time to study the evidence against him. (Saddamâ€™s lawyers will doubtless request an adjournment, but they will probably be granted only fifteen days.) But the real flaw is that the charge has been framed to avoid any discussion of the US governmentâ€™s share of the responsibility for his atrocities.
Saddam could easily be convicted on the Dujail charge, exhaust his appeals, and be hanged before the end of the year. Iraqâ€™s Shias and Kurds will celebrate his death, but its Sunni Arabs â€“ and a great many people elsewhere in the Arab world â€“ will see him as a martyr to the Arab nationalist cause. He is nothing of the sort, but the hypocrisy of this trial is revolting.