Enemy Number One of the US, Britain and the Iraqi people will be tried, after all. On Wednesday, Saddam Hussein and 11 of his closest associates were turned over to the Iraq interim government, an anonymous US military official announced.
The transfer was de jure rather than de facto, as Saddam will still be guarded by US troops, though he will leave the US base outside Baghdad where he had been kept for seven months after his capture in December 2003.
The Americans had to turn the former Iraqi president over to his compatriots because international law prohibits an occupying power to keep prisoners after the end of the occupation period.
Accordingly, Saddam Hussein turned from a prisoner of war into an ordinary inmate two days after Iraq gained formal sovereignty. If there is a window in his new cell, he will see US troopers outside. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has said that the Iraqi penitentiary system is not ready yet to ensure the safe keeping of Saddam and his accomplices.
The group of those who will be turned over to the Iraqi law includes a number of sinister figures. Taha Yassin Ramadan, one of the two vice-presidents whom international human rights organisations charge with the torture and murder of tens of thousands of Iraqis. Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Takriti, the bloodthirsty chief of the presidential guards, and Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, the architect of the 1988 genocidal Anfal gas attack against the Iraqi Kurds.
Why were these 11 chosen for trial? There were 55 villains in the US card pack, and most of them have been captured or surrendered.
Russian lawyers point out that the investigation of charges against the former Iraqi power elite was entrusted to a group of dozens of American attorneys, lawyers and security service specialists, called the Regime Crimes Liaison Office. It is headquartered in the US Embassy in Iraq and acts in place of the Iraqi investigation agencies, which has stirred the unease of international human rights organisations. Who is the judge, Iraq or America? they ask.
One way or another, there are two explanations for the selection of the 11 culprits. US investigators from the Regime Crimes Liaison Office have possibly collected the most reliable proof of these men's crimes. Or the prisoners who co-operated with the investigators will not be turned over to the Iraqis so far; the Americans probably want to keep them away from defence lawyers.
Ayad Allawi said the charges against all 12, including Saddam Hussein, can be brought this week but the trial of the dictator will be held no sooner than in a few months.
RIA sources among Russian experts on the Middle East tend to interpret this statement as a sign of the Iraqi authorities' uncertainty as to when the situation will become favourable for the trial.
Having gained formal sovereignty on June 28, Iraq will have to make a jump into the unknown, say the experts. While it waits for a favourable moment to hold the trial, the situation in the country could deteriorate at least in two areas. First, violence and terrorism could grow; the resistance forces will do their best to hinder normalisation and drive a wedge between the interim government and the US administration. And second, the leaders of political and religious factions in the heterogeneous Iraqi society may decide to fight for power.
Worse men than Saddam Hussein could sweep to power in Iraq in a civil war. But, as optimists, we shall hope that the tribunal set up in Baghdad in January for the trial of the tyrant and his entourage, will start working in a few months.
Saddam is indeed guilty of many crimes. Browsing through Iraqi history, the attorneys will cite Iraq's attack on Iran in 1980, which claimed the lives of about a million people, including 20,000 who died in chemical attacks, as Tehran claims. In 1988, the same chemical agents were used on Saddam's orders to quell a Kurdish uprising. After the Iraqi war on Kuwait in November 1990, thousands of Kuwaitis were executed, tortured or driven to Iraq and 700 oil wells were set on fire, says Kuwait. Israel, which was damaged by the Scud missiles during the Gulf war, is ready to add its charges.
But the dictator's main crime lies in 270 mass graves found in the country. According to Ayad Allawi, they are the last resting place of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from different religious and ethnic groups.
The obvious gravity of charges does not mean that the trial of Saddam will be simple for the US and the interim Iraqi government.
To begin with, Saddam's wife, Sajida, has hired a team of 20 major Western defence lawyers. According to Iraqi justice minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan, a foreigner must get the approval of the Iraqi Bar to take part in the trial. Saddam's lawyers are sure they will get it. His French lawyer, Emmanuel Ludot, has even hinted at the defence strategy. According to him, Saddam Hussein will challenge any Iraqi court as illegal and any judge as incompetent. The logic of his defence lawyers is based on the assumption that the judicial institutions and judges of Iraq received their status as a result of the war that violated all norms of international law, was waged without the UN Security Council's mandate, and is hence not legitimate.
The defence also protests against holding the trial in Iraq. It will be a revenge hearing, a squaring of accounts, according to Ludot. He means two things: the interim government consists of his client's enemies and that it is not Iraq but the US that is investigating the case, elaborating the prosecution strategy, and financing the tribunal. Even if we assume that the US is doing this for the noblest of motives, international human rights organisations will dismiss the trial as biased.
This is why such prominent lawyers as Kenneth Roth, chief executivedirector of Human Rights Watch, are demanding that the trial be moved from Iraq to an international agency modelled after the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
The mention of Yugoslavia makes one think that the dictator might use the trial as the tribune for justifying himself, as former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic has been doing successfully in the past few years. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has facts that will displease the prosecution. In particular, it is a fact that the US provided comprehensive assistance to Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war.