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A Nation Stands on Trial


in Baghdad

It should have been a moment of supreme triumph: Saddam Hussein finally brought to bay, standing in the dock in Baghdad to answer for his crimes. The trial ought to have marked the victory of the new Iraqi state, but instead served only to underline its fragility.

Human rights groups in Britain and the US criticised the proceedings against the former president of Iraq and six other defendants as “victor’s justice”. But in Baghdad there were few signs of victory. If the Iraqi government was so victorious, why did four out of five of the judges and all but one of the prosecutors need to hide their faces and identities? Why were 30 to 40 witnesses too scared to turn up? Why did the court building have to be more heavily defended, as a US marshal jocularly remarked, than the White House?

War crimes tribunals in Germany and Japan after 1945 left nobody in any doubt about who had won the war. In Baghdad, the first day of the trial of Saddam–now set to resume on 28 November–certainly showed the former dictator in defeat, but also demonstrated how difficult and dangerous it is to replace him.

The lethal anarchy of life in Iraq outside the Green Zone inevitably revealed itself within a day of the trial being prorogued. Sadoun Said al- Janabi, the lawyer for Awad Hamed al-Bandar, a revolutionary court judge on trial with Saddam, was kidnapped by seven gunmen and later shot dead.

The court proceedings were a telling symbol of the fragmentation of power in Iraq. In theory, Iraqis are in charge of the trial. In practice, some 50 American, British and Australian lawyers and legal support staff underpin the proceedings. “In private Iraqis blame the Americans for the confusion, and vice versa,” said one observer.

Why is the Iraqi state so weak? It is now two-and-a-half years since Saddam Hussein was overthrown. A vastly expensive US army of 145,000 men is stationed in the country. They have trained an Iraqi army of 80,000 men. There are also supposedly 120,000 police and other security men spread out across the country. But even as Iraqis waited for Saddam’s trial to start, the boom of mortar shells exploding in the Green Zone resounded across the capital.

US and Iraqi government officials live a strangely isolated existence in this enclave. It is the world’s largest gated community. Its inhabitants have a limited idea of the world in which Iraqis live beyond the heavily fortified gates and checkpoints. Their attitude is a mixture of paranoia about their own safety and callousness or over-confidence about that of others.

Two days before the referendum on the constitution on 15 October, the US embassy asked journalists to come to the Convention Centre to attend a press briefing on the vote given by a State Department official. I gingerly approached the appropriate entrance to the Green Zone on foot. It is unwise to bring a car too close because suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted this entrance with its massive concrete fortifications, so Iraqi and US soldiers are understandably prone to open fire on suspicion.

As I walked in front of the first checkpoint I noticed a battered red car had stopped near me. Peering through the grubby windscreen I saw an elderly man who looked confused about where he was. The soldiers started frantically shouting at him to move, fearing he was a bomber. They then almost immediately opened fire, the bullets passing close overhead. I took refuge behind a concrete wall. Seconds later the red car shot forward, the old man cowering over the wheel, and disappeared around a corner.

After passing through no less than seven lines of sandbags and razor wire I got to the Convention Centre, only to discover that the briefing had been cancelled. A bored voice on the phone from the US embassy explained that the senior diplomat had been unavoidably detain-ed. I heard an American general explain how the last desperate remnants of the insurgents were being relentlessly hunted down.

Green Zone inhabitants are far more circumspect about their own safety. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Prime Minister, recently wanted to visit President Jalal Talabani, whose house is five minutes drive from the Green Zone. Mr al-Jaafari was told by his Western security men that he must delay the visit for a day because it would take 24 hours to arrange for him to travel safely even half a mile from the Green Zone.

Iraq has had three administrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The first was under Paul Bremer, the US viceroy, to be followed by Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister for eight months from June 2004, and then Mr al- Jaafari this year. All three have failed. The insurgency in Sunni Arab districts has not diminished. Some time this week the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq, currently at 1,992 will probably hit the 2,000 mark. The number of casualties per day is not going down.

The present government was popularly elected, representing a Kurdish- Shia alliance from the two communities to which 80 per cent of Iraqis belong. But it has never truly gelled as an administration. The Kurdish leaders are far more effective and efficient than their Shia opposite numbers but their basic interest is in securing the quasi-independence of Kurdistan.

The Iraqi government and army are not quite what they look. For instance, the Iraqi army is meant to have 115 battalions containing 80,000 men. But Peter Galbraith, the former US diplomat, citing senior officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, claims that in reality there are only 40,000 soldiers. This is because commanders were given cash to pay their men and inflated their numbers so they could pocket the pay of non-existent forces. Nor will this army be easy to use against insurgents because its composition is highly sectarian. It has 60 Shia battalions, 45 Sunni and nine Kurdish. Only one battalion is mixed. The Shia and Sunni units provoke hostility outside areas in which their own communities live.

The first day of the trial of Saddam Hussein turned out not to be a demonstration of the victory of the new regime over the old, as was intended. But, ironically, the atmosphere of confusion and fear in the court was a far more apt, if unintentional, symbol of Iraq today.



Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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