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Posted to Poetry and Politics

Seeing Saddam in the dock shows why we went to war

By Patrick Bishop
(Filed: 02/07/2004)

It's strange how a courtroom shrinks even the biggest villains. Think of Eichmann in Jerusalem, shuffling his mountain of notes and smiling ingratiatingly at his accusers, or Milosevic in The Hague launching another self-righteous harangue.

So it was, yesterday, when Saddam Hussein appeared before a judge in Baghdad. The tyrant whose whim determined the fate of millions had been reduced to a shifty little man with bad teeth and dressed in an ill-matching suit.

But the banality of the proceedings should not distract us from the significance of the event. The trial of Saddam is of enormous importance, for Iraq and for the world. For the first time in the Middle East, a despot is being made to answer to his own subjects.

If it succeeds it will go a long way to burying a dreadful past and laying the foundations of a better future, not just for Iraq but for the whole region.

If there is one thing that Iraqis agree on, it is that Saddam Hussein was an evil man who should be made to pay for his crimes. When asked about him, everyone responds with the same formulaic reply. "There is not a household in the country that has not lost a brother, a husband, a son," they say. It is an exaggeration, but only just.

Saddam personified a political structure and a system of thought of staggering vileness. It was maintained by violence and terror - truly the Republic of Fear. By now this should be a statement of the obvious. But the controversy that preceded the war and the perpetual crises that have followed it have clouded this overwhelming truth.

The arraignment of Saddam has brought that reality back into focus. The detail that emerges from the evidence will provide a reminder of what Iraqis have escaped from. The Iraqis, it seems, need to have their memories stirred.

It was Saddam himself who remarked of his people that "if you give them an apple they want the whole bowl of fruit".
Gratitude for deliverance evaporated faster than a morning mist on the Tigris. Many Iraqis are cynical about the motives of the occupiers and unimpressed by those they have installed in power. It is not unusual to hear people express the opinion that "we were better off under Saddam".

The grisly testimony waiting to emerge should persuade them of the falsity of this view. It could also encourage the Iraqis to comprehend the vastness of the opportunity that has been presented to them and to seize it and use it well.

The trial drags the Iraq story back to its central, vital theme. The war was about two things: getting rid of Saddam and creating a society in the heart of the Middle East that would spread the benign contagion of freedom and justice through the region.

Thanks to the obfuscations of Mr Blair and Mr Bush, those laudable aims have been obscured in the babble about WMD and al-Qa'eda. Thanks to some key miscalculations by the American proconsul Paul Bremer, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the heavy-handed tactics of some American troops, the purpose and achievements of the occupation have been submerged in bad news.

The trial of Saddam gives Iraq and the coalition the chance of a new start. For it to succeed, though, the process must be credible.

The validity of the tribunal has, predictably, already been called into question by Saddam's 20-strong legal team, which is taking advice from 1,500 public-spirited lawyers in Europe, America and the Arab world.

Some critics are arguing that the fact of their sufferings means Iraqis are automatically disqualified from trying the man who inflicted them, and that the trial should be conducted by an international court. But for the people of Iraq the fact that Iraqi judges will be bringing to justice the man who has blighted their lives for 35 years is the first tangible sign that they are on the road to mastering their own affairs, and that the ghostly notion of sovereignty has taken on some real solidity.

For this reason it is crucial that the international legal advisers who will be on hand to offer advice are only brought into play when absolutely necessary. For the trial to succeed, it needs to be Iraqi justice, delivered by Iraqis.

If this means that Saddam is condemned to death, as most people in the country seem to want, then the outside world should have little say in the matter. Saddam dead would mean that the nightmare was finally over. To many, he is a creature of myth. As long as he lives, the prospect of his return will always lurk in the nation's consciousness. His continued existence also provides sustenance to those insurgents who battle on in the hope that they may one day be returned to power.

That, though, is an old way of thinking. Saddam alive, albeit condemned to end his days in jail, would send a more positive message to the country and the world. It would confound the cynical analysis that Iraqis are not built for democracy and have little acquaintance with concepts of human rights.

It would be a first step towards establishing Iraq as a model of just rule in a region where repression, cruelty and inequity are the norm, and set surrounding rulers trembling as they wait for their people to notice what is happening in the neighbourhood and start demanding some of the same. This, after all, was the great idea behind the invasion, though well hidden among the welter of conflicting purported war aims. The Iraq campaign was conceived in dishonesty. The occupation has been blighted by muddle and stupidity. For all their failings, though, the motivations of those who launched the war, and are still struggling to establish the peace, were good.

The sight of Saddam in the dock is a necessary reminder of who is ultimately responsible for the country's troubles. His trial and sentencing are an essential first move in the process of recovery.

Optimism is unfashionable when talking about Iraq these days. But there was something genuinely hopeful in the eyes of Iraqi citizens as they expressed their satisfaction to television interviewers yesterday. The big man was a little man after all. Time to get on with a better life.
(same source; I'm too lazy to find the link, but peruse the telegraph site and you'll find it.)