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Bread and Circus Trials in Iraq
Justice as Photo-Op
by ROBERT FISK


The Independent

Now it is time for bread and circuses. Keep the people distracted. Show them Saddam. Remind them what it used to be like. Make them grateful. Make Saddam pay. Show his face once more across the world so that his victims will think about the past, not the present. Charge him. Before the full majesty of Iraq’s new "democratic" law. And may George Bush win the next American election.

That’s pretty much how it looked from Baghdad yesterday. Forget the 12-hour power cuts and the violence and the kidnappings and the insurgency. Let’s go back again to the gruesome days of Baathist rule, let’s revisit once more the theatre of cruelty–back to all those war crimes and crimes against humanity with which the Monster will be charged. Let’s take another look at Tariq Aziz and "Chemical" Ali and the rest. Isn’t this why we came to Iraq–to rescue the Iraqis from the Beast of Baghdad?

When Saddam was "handed over" yesterday to Iraqi officials by the Americans –we don’t know how–he apparently wanted to know if he would have the right to a lawyer (never a previous concern of his where prisoners were concerned). Salem Chalabi, a close relative of the convicted fraudster and former Pentagon favourite Ahmed Chalabi, is leading the Iraqi tribunal’s work. So no surprise Saddam asked for counsel.

Saddam was freighted up from his close security prison cell in Qatar for his meeting with "Iraqi justice"–exactly what that means was not clear although most Western journalists used the phrase–and will today face an Iraqi judge who will formally accuse the ex-dictator of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trouble is, we haven’t got the charges against Saddam quite put together yet. It will take at least a year to decide the exact details of what he’s going to be accused of.

The gassing of Halabja? Of course. The mass killings of Shia after the 1991 rising? No doubt. The torture of innocent Iraqis at Saddam’s Abu Ghraib prison? Although that might not be a place name that the tribunal–or the Americans–want to hear right now. And will the death penalty be used? Quite possibly–at least, that’s what an awful lot of Iraqis would like. It was, after all, Saddam’s favourite punishment. Could "Chemical" Ali of Halabja notoriety escape such a sentence?

Then there’s the little problem of the Iraqi tribunal whose "judges" all turn out to be lawyers without, apparently, any judicial skills. Many are Iraqis who spent years in exile–the kind with whom a growing number of Iraqis who stayed and endured Saddam’s rule are increasingly disenchanted. A judge, so we are told, will formally read a written text against Saddam. We don’t know where. We don’t even know when–today presumably. The old "occupying" power–in other words the new "occupying" power if you find the country’s new independence a bit hard to swallow–has let it be known that there may be "media access" when Saddam appears.

So one of those familiar "pools" will no doubt be created–I will put my bets on CNN and the loony right Fox News as certainties–and we’ll all be able to study Saddam at the critical moment when he begins to "face up to his crimes", or whatever cliché we produce for the occasion. For justice, read photo-opportunity.

Journalists will do their best to turn all this into a success story. Even yesterday, the BBC was telling viewers that Saddam’s appearance in court was "exactly what Iraqis have been waiting for". Alas, Iraqis have been waiting for electricity and safety and freedom from crime and elections far more than the trial of the miserable old murderer who will be paraded before us.

As an Iraqi woman financial consultant–no friend of the Baath party–put it to me yesterday: "This is a childish play, written by children for children. We have real needs and they want us to go and watch a play."

For if the handing over of "full sovereignty" to an American-chosen Iraqi government had about it an Alice in Wonderland quality, today’s interlude with Saddam will mark the appearance of the Cheshire Cat. Maybe he will smile. Maybe he will shout his defiance of the judge–and have to be restrained.

Heaven forbid he will accuse the new "interim" government of being puppets of the United States. Or, worse, remind the court of his own long relationship with US governments. But most assuredly, like the Cheshire Cat, he will fade away again, put back in his box for another 12 months until the "Trial of the Century".