Even as he stands trial in Baghdad today after almost two years in prison, Saddam Hussein’s name still carries a charge of fear for Iraqis.
“The problem was to get judges who were not afraid to prosecute Saddam despite intimidation and threats,” Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister, told The Independent yesterday. Although Saddam was overthrown in April 2003, many people in Baghdad remained fearful of saying his name, the minister said.
Zebari, a Kurd who spent his life fighting Saddam’s regime, is eager to get proceedings under way and says it was a serious mistake not to have begun months ago. He believes that Saddam remains an important motivator for Baathists fighting the new government.
“It will really be the trial of the history of his regime over 35 years,” Zebari said, referring particularly to the day that the bodies of 500 members of the Barzani tribe, of whom 8,000 were massacred in 1983, were brought back to Kurdistan to be buried.
“Every family can make a case against Saddam,” he said. “Even the mountains, the water, the marshes of Iraq can testify against him. We have to bring to an end this dark chapter in Iraqi history.”
Personally, Zebari said, he would like a swift trial, but he did not think this would happen. He implied there would be a brief opening session and then the trial would be delayed for several weeks. This would allow the defense lawyers to read the evidence and for arrangements to be made to protect witnesses. “Those who are going to testify against him need security protection.”
American and Iraqi officials have also said that there is likely to be a delay of several weeks before the full trial of Saddam Hussein and seven other defendants gets under way.
The charges against Saddam and the seven others in the dock today relate to the killing of 143 men from the village of Dujail, north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt against Saddam in 1982. This incident, hitherto little publicized, was chosen because there is paper evidence linking the former leader to the murders. Although the number of dead was limited compared to other massacres, the cruel collective punishment was typical of Saddam’s secret police approach throughout his 35 years in power.
Other cases being investigated include the killing of at least 185,000 Kurds in the Anfal campaign by the Iraqi army in 1987-88, and the slaughter of thousands of Shia after the crushing of the 1991 uprising. There is also the murder of Shia religious leaders on different occasions and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Some 40 tons of documents are still being examined.
Iran said yesterday it had sent its own charges to the Iraqi court, related to the use of chemical weapons against civilians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which more than 500,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands wounded.
Of the 17 members of the Dawa party who opened fire on Saddam’s surprisingly lightly guarded motorcade in Dujail in 1992, eight were killed and nine fled to Iran.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, now Iraqi Prime Minister, who was a leader of Dawa at the time, says he is puzzled why the case took so long to put together. “Any more delay will bring Iraq, the judiciary and the government into question. It’s the right of every Iraqi citizen to ask why it took so long to prepare the Dujail case.”
Going by a brief earlier court appearance by Saddam, the fallen leader will seek to dominate the proceedings and use them as a political podium. For this reason the court officials are still equivocating on whether or not to allow live television coverage or delay broadcasts by 20 to 30 minutes so they can be censored.
Zebari said contemptuously that “people are saying that Saddam is going to try the occupation, Saddam is going to try the government, but really we are not afraid of that. I don’t think that even the US or Britain are afraid of this.”
The trial will take place in a former Baath party headquarters in Baghdad, which has been rebuilt with two modern courtrooms. Although the proceedings are being presented as wholly Iraqi, the US has reportedly spent $138m (£79m) on construction and is paying 50 American, British and Australian lawyers and support staff. The Special Tribunal before which Saddam will be appearing was set up by the American occupation in 2003.
Saddam’s defense will be conducted by Khalil al- Dulaimi, who meets his notorious client at Camp Cropper, the US army detention close to Baghdad airport, where he is held. Dulaimi will seek to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the tribunal was set up by the US and is therefore illegal.
He is also expected to seek a dismissal on the grounds that he has not read 800 pages of evidence and been allowed sufficient access to his client. He spent one and a half hours with Saddam yesterday and told reporters afterwards: “His morale is very, very, very high and he is very optimistic and confident of his innocence, although the court is … unjust.”
As for its political and military effects, although the Iraqi resistance to the change in regime, at least in its initial phase, was probably guided by former members of the Iraqi security services and the Baath party, it is not clear that this is still so. The US has sought to portray all the insurgency as being directed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his fanatical Sunni militants.
Many Sunnis will regard the trial as further evidence that they are being persecuted by the Shia-Kurdish majority, who make up 80 per cent of the Iraqi population.
Although only a minority of Sunnis, notably the Tikritis and those related to Saddam, benefited substantially from his rule, many have since come to regard it as a lost era of security and prosperity.
Zebari cited recent Baath party literature as evidence. It says that the trial today should greeted by “firing deadly bullets to kill as many enemy agents as possible”.
But as the old regime savagely persecuted the Islamic militants who are now fighting the government and the US occupation. They will presumably not be distressed to see Saddam on trial.
Today is certainly a significant day in Iraqi history. Saddam dominated life for more than a third of a century. His picture, variously dressed in a business suit, Kurdish tunic, Arab robes and military uniform, once decorated every street.
He was never a stupid man, but he came to see himself as a demi-God whose wishes or ideas even his most senior lieutenants found it dangerous to criticise. He identified with historic leaders from Hammurabi to Saladin and pictured himself in heroic mode.
Although never a professional soldier, his vision of himself was as a conqueror. He inherited a country that had great oil wealthy, an effective administration and an increasingly well-educated population and ruined it by launching two disastrous wars, the first against Iran in 1980 and the second against Kuwait in 1990.
Sunnis may still see him as part of their community and most Kurds and Shias will want to see him executed, but all will watch today’s trial with fascination. Human rights organizations in the West, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticized the structure of the proceedings, saying it could produce a “victors’ justice”.
They have highlighted such issues as the burden of proof, political influence over the court and the use of the death penalty. “We have grave concerns that the court will not provide the fair trial guarantees required by international law,” said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch.
Jaafari yesterday dismissed such concerns, saying: “This government takes pride in adhering to the rule of law and the separation of powers. As the head of the executive branch [I can say] we have not interfered in any way with the progress of the trial.”
PATRICK COCKBURN was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting in recognition of his writing on Iraq over the past year. His new memoir, The Broken Boy, has just been published in the UK by Jonathan Cape.