Off with His Head

'Let the jury consider the verdict,'' the King said for the 20th time that day.
''No. No!'' said the Queen. "Sentence first-verdict afterwards!''
"Stuff and nonsense!'' Alice said loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!''
'Hold your tongue!'' the Queen said, turning purple.
''I won't!'' said Alice.
''Off with her head!'' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.
      --"Through the Looking Glass," Lewis Carroll

      Never mind Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson. The celebrity defendant of 2004 will clearly be Saddam Hussein.
Here in the United States, however, TV ratings may prove disappointing. First, President Bush has already pronounced
the deposed Iraqi strongman guilty, which pretty much ruins the suspense. Members of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing
Council, who plan to produce and direct the spectacle, have made it clear that Saddam faces the death penalty.
One overheated U.S. pundit, Thomas Sowell,  has already suggested stoning.

      Alas, the Baghdad show trial will very likely be conducted in a foreign language, specifically Arabic, which not only
minimizes its appeal to American audiences, but confronts Saddam's captors with a whole series of ticklish legal and
political problems the administration clearly didn't anticipate. Bush, who famously urged U.S. troops to bring Saddam
back "dead or alive" may regret not making himself clearer. In the cowboy movies he mimicked, the phrase is considered
encouragement to shoot the varmint on sight and bring his corpse in draped face down over a saddle.

      Alive and cunning, Saddam may yet prove dangerous to U.S. goals in the Middle East. He may have looked like an old
wino after emerging from his underground dungeon, but the Iraqi dictator didn't get to be boss of bosses in the criminal conspiracy
that was the Baath Party by being stupid or unimaginative. Given a platform to harangue the entire Arab-speaking world via the
al Jazeera satellite TV network, there's a strong possibility he could turn the trial into a U.S. propaganda disaster.

      Having hastily cut and pasted the definitions of "the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for
their tribunal from the International Criminal Court statute," a Human Rights Watch spokesman told the British newspaper
The Guardian, Iraq's Governing Council has put itself in the ironic position of enforcing laws the Americans who appointed it
don't acknowledge. Fearful that U.S. soldiers could be charged with war crimes in foreign countries, the Bush administration
has refused to ratify the 1998 Rome treaty that created the ICC.

      The Iraqi tribunal's legitimacy aside, millions of Arabs already believe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had nothing to do
with Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction nor his genocidal crimes, and everything to do with a conspiracy
to steal oil. Most think that America supports corrupt dictators like Saddam and the Shah of Iran until they're no longer useful,
using the language of freedom and democracy only to justify military aggression.

      So maybe the first thing Iraq's Governing Council ought to think about is establishing a statute of limitations. Because
depending upon which crimes against humanity he's charged with--of which there's no shortage--Saddam's trial could afford
him plenty of evidence to charge that he couldn't possibly be guilty, or else the Reagan and Bush I administrations wouldn't
have kept selling him weapons.

      Take Iraq's use of chemical weapons. Soon after the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, Saddam quickly became the Reagan
administration's favorite Persian Gulf dictator. Fearful that Iranian-style Islamic extremism would spread to U.S.-friendly
monarchies in Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the administration not only turned a blind eye to Saddam's brutalities,
it removed Iraq from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, thus making it eligible for billions in agricultural credits and
so-called "dual use" goods such as chemicals and technology for manufacturing poison gas weapons.

      Buried on page 42A of the Washington Post last week was Dana Priest's story using newly declassified documents to
detail how the U.S. reacted to Iran's complaints that Iraq used poison gas during the Iraq-Iran war. After publicly denouncing
Iraq, the Reagan administration dispatched one Donald H. Rumsfeld to Baghdad in 1983 to reassure Saddam privately that
he mustn't misunderstand: "the US. desire 'to improve bilateral relations, at a pace of Iraq's choosing,' remained 'undiminished.'"

      Cables instructed Rumsfeld to emphasize American friendliness in his talks with Saddam. While it's unlikely an Iraqi tribunal
could require Rummy to appear as a witness, news photos of the US defense secretary shaking hands with the smiling Iraqi
dictator would sure make a dandy defense exhibit. Rumsfeld returned in 1984, the Post reported, both "to ease the strain
created by a U.S. condemnation of chemical weapons" and to discuss the construction of a pipeline to deliver Iraqi oil to
Aqaba, on the Red Sea in Jordan.

      Even the allegation that Saddam was guilty of "gassing his own people" in the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, as Bush
himself has charged, turns out not to be so clear. According to a New York Times column by CIA analyst Stephen C. Pelletiere,
a classifed report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Iran probably did it.

      None of this renders the Butcher of Baghdad innocent,
but it does show how unpredictable the consequences of his trial could turn out to be.

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