Time to Tell Hussein’s Story

According to Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, Saddam Hussein is “distraught and depressed” and begging for mercy. According to others, Saddam Hussein spends his days playing dominoes with former cronies. According to just about everybody, Saddam Hussein is surprised to be alive, having naturally assumed that his first courtroom appearance last July was a prelude to execution. But if his real state of mind is unknown, so, too, is Saddam Hussein’s ultimate fate.

Indeed, thanks to the fighting in Baghdad, the insurgents in Fallujah and the mudslinging at home, the original source of instability in Iraq has been almost forgotten. While he sits in prison eating army rations, technical hurdles have indefinitely derailed ambitious plans to bring Hussein and his former associates to trial. According to those who have worked with them, the Iraqi judges investigating the multiple charges against Hussein are unaccustomed to the rigorous requirements of evidence and proof, unaccustomed to international human rights law and unaccustomed even to working eight-hour days.

Political infighting isn’t helping either. Clearly there are some in the new Iraqi leadership who would prefer not to hold a trial at all, or at least not one involving lawyers, presentation of evidence and national debate. While visiting the United States last month, Allawi several times stated his preference for a fast trial, and a fast execution, possibly as soon as this month. It’s not hard to guess why: A short trial would let a lot of senior Baathists off the hook, would consolidate former opponents of Hussein behind Allawi, and would dispense with the whole thorny problem of “guilt” altogether. Although it seems the American government has so far persuaded him not to go that route, Allawi has embroiled the ongoing investigations and preparation in controversy by effectively removing Salem Chalabi, the Iraqi exile lawyer who set up the tribunal last winter.

Not many have noticed. With bombs exploding in the Green Zone, the fate of Saddam Hussein seems to many a secondary priority. But what if this logic is backward? Leave aside abstract ideals of justice and human rights and consider the practical reasons to get this tribunal underway: What if the insurgency, the bombs and the massacres are happening precisely because there has been no national discussion of the past?

If that sounds peculiar, don’t listen to me. Listen instead to Kanan Makiya, the former Iraqi dissident who has now dedicated himself to consolidating, scanning and investigating the archives of the former regime. Makiya thinks that what matters is not whether the Iraqis remember Hussein’s reign but how they remember it. Was the Baathist state a totalitarian regime under which the entire nation suffered? Or was it a conspiracy of the Sunni minority against the Shiite majority? If Iraqis come to believe the former, argues Makiya, it might still be possible for them to unify behind a new national government. If Iraqis come to believe the latter, the result could be ethnic civil war. A complete trial of Hussein, one that showed the extent of the corruption, forced collaboration, violence and terror he imposed on the entire nation, might help Iraqis understand that all of them — Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish — suffered in different ways.

If Makiya’s views aren’t convincing, listen to Leszek Balcerowicz, who was the Polish finance minister during his country’s economic transformation at the beginning of the 1990s. Ruminating recently on the parallels between post-communism and post-Baathism, Balcerowicz noted that along with inflation and price controls, one of the most serious obstacles to reform in Poland was the information imbalance. Because there was no free press before 1989, Poles knew little about the real state of their country. After 1989 there was a lot of free press, and it was all negative. Fed on a diet of “isn’t everything terrible,” many began to idealize the past and reject the present. Something similar may be happening in Iraq today. Increasingly, everything that is wrong in Iraq, from the malfunctioning infrastructure to the ethnic tensions, is blamed on the U.S. occupation. A wider debate about how Iraq got to where it is — how Hussein mismanaged the country, murdered whole villages and stole the nation’s money — might help persuade Iraqis to invest in the present.

It is in the U.S. government’s power to make this happen. The original decision to hold Hussein’s trial under Iraqi auspices was a good one, but the tribunal now needs more help from international judges and investigators, and more assistance from the U.S. intelligence officers who still control so many Baathist documents. Administration officials can and should persuade Allawi to conduct the trial carefully too. Hussein himself, whether he wrings his hands all day or plays backgammon, is of no importance. But his legacy, and how Iraqis remember it, might matter more than anything else.

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