The Trials of Saddam Hussein

18 December 2003

The Trials of Saddam Hussein

By Gwynne Dyer

“(Saddam Hussein) was wise not to wait too long,” said Colonel James Hickey, commander of the American forces that took the former Iraqi leader prisoner on 14 December. “We were about to clear that (underground facility) in a military sort of way,” he added, explaining that “things like that are cleared with hand grenades, small arms, things like that.” But Hickey’s instructions were to capture or kill’ Saddam, and the latter managed to get his hands up in time.

The Bush administration is probably wishing quite hard by now that Saddam had waited a little longer and been killed in his hole. While others debate where he should be tried and by whom, and whether he should face the death penalty or not, President Bush’s people will be realising just about now that they can’t afford to give him a fair trial at all.

He would certainly be convicted in the end: the evidence of Saddam’s crimes over the years is overwhelming. But in a fair trial, with normal rules of evidence and reasonably competent defence lawyers, it would be impossible to stop the defence from pointing out that every US administration from 1980 to 1992 (all Republican administrations, as it happens) was directly or indirectly complicit in his crimes.

During Saddam’s quarter-century of power in Iraq, every year saw tens of thousands of people tortured and killed, for that is the nature of absolute dictatorships of any political ideology. Mao Tse-tung, the Argentine generals and Idi Amin all did it, the Algerian regime, the Burmese generals, and Kim Jong-Il are all doing it today. But nobody would have tried Mao for the routine fifty or hundred thousand people killed by his regime in an average year like 1962; they would have focused on the millions who were exiled, tortured, and/or murdered during the Cultural Revolution.

Saddam’s career includes three great crimes: the use of poison gas against Iranian troops during the 1980-88 war; the slaughter of rebellious Iraqi Kurds towards the end of that war and just afterwards (again involving the use of poison gas); and the massacres of Kurds and Shia Arabs who rebelled against his rule after the Gulf War of 1991. After that, his misdeeds fall back to a more mundane level.

These three great crimes, committed between 1983 and 1991, would be the primary focus of any trial. The problem for the US government is that it was directly implicated in the first two, and largely though indirectly responsible for the third as well. A truly impartial court might even lay charges against senior American political and military figures (including some in the present administration) who assisted Saddam in his war crimes. At the least, the whole process would be acutely embarrassing for the United States.

US involvement with Saddam’s regime began in 1983, when his ill-advised invasion of Iran had backfired spectacularly and Iraq was facing defeat at the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini’s radically anti-American regime in Iran. The US knew that Saddam was already illegally using chemical weapons against Iranian troops on an almost daily basis, but in December, 1983 the Reagan administration sent Donald Rumsfeld (now US Defence Secretary) to Baghdad to tell Saddam that it was willing to help and wanted to restore full diplomatic relations.

In the following years, the US government allowed vital ingredients for chemical weapons to be exported to Iraq, together with dozens of biological agents, including anthrax. It also supplied Iraq with intelligence information on Iranian troop movements and positions, and from 1986 even sent US Air Force officers to Iraq to help interpret US-supplied satellite and aerial photos to plan attacks against Iran — in which it was clearly understood by Washington that huge quantities of poison gas would be used.

The Reagan administration used its influence to kill a Senate bill banning the export of US military technology to Iraq to punish Saddam for using chemical weapons against Iran. When Saddam used poison gas against his own Kurdish population at Halabja in 1988, killing 6,800 innocent people, US diplomats were instructed to blame the incident on Iran. All this would come out in gory detail (and perhaps much more besides) if Saddam ever got a fair and public trial.

The third great crime of the Saddam years was the massacre of rebellious Shia Arabs and, to a lesser extent, of Kurds, after Saddam’s defeat in the 1991 war. These occurred because President George H.W. Bush urged the Iraqi population to revolt against Saddam — but when they did, he withheld US military support, even allowing Saddam’s helicopter gunships to range freely over the rebellious areas. It was not complicity, but it was at least great carelessness.

This is why there will probably be no public trial at all. It has already become clear that the ousted Iraqi leader, contrary to Washington’s first statements, will not be treated as a prisoner of war although he is technically the captured commander-in-chief of a defeated national army. Instead, he will be assigned to the same legal limbo shared by the hundreds who have been imprisoned in Guantanamo for the past two years, suffering perpetual interrogation without the protection of the Geneva Conventions and beyond the reach of any national law including that of the United States.

Nobody at Guantanamo has yet been brought to trial. Saddam will be the same.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“During…Revolution”; and “These three…United States”)