Ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appeared Thursday in an Iraqi court to hear the charges against him, opening a judicial procedure being billed as the "trial of the century." The trial also marks an important step in Iraqi efforts to regain international legitimacy and achieve some sort of national reconciliation.
Iraq's Prime Minister Iyad Allawi underlines the significance of putting Saddam Hussein and other members of his government on trial.
"We would like to show the world also that the new Iraqi government means business, and wants to do business, and wants to stabilize Iraq and put it on the road towards democracy and peace," said Mr. Allawi.
But even beyond enhancing the democratic credentials of the new Iraq, many see the trial as an essential path toward reconciliation.
"I've always believed the sooner we get Saddam Hussein in the courtroom, the better for Iraq, because there is a sense of cleansing, reconciliation process that will take place during that trial. It is going to be a very traumatic moment for Iraq, but it is a kind of reverse trauma that Iraq needs to go through," said Iraq's representative in Washington, Rend Rahim.
American Law Professor Michael Scharf of Case Western University sees some other potential benefits that reach beyond Iraq's borders.
"The other things that the trial of Saddam Hussein could accomplish are they could create a historic record of his atrocities. So, people in the region who were subjected to propaganda, and didn't really know really what was going on will understand the context in which the United States and its coalition felt forced to invade, and how different the new system with respect to human rights is likely to be from the old system. And, that will help them move on," he said.
Still, legal experts look at the trial of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague and raise concerns that Saddam Hussein could use his trial as a grandstand to fuel civil unrest.
When he appeared in an Iraqi court Thursday to hear the charges against him, he began to show some of his former feistiness. He is heard through an interpreter responding to one of the charges related to his 1990 invasion in Kuwait.
"The seventh charge against Saddam Hussein was against the president of Iraq as the commander in chief of the army. The army went to Kuwait, okay, then it was an official matter. So how come a charge will be levied against someone, an official, who is carrying out his duties? How can you punish that person, while that person, given his title, has guarantees against being sued? These are rights guaranteed by the constitution," he said.
Iraqi judicial authorities insist the former Iraqi leader will have full and proper access to legal counsel to respond to a range of charges related to the Kuwait invasion, his eight-year war with Iran and the 1988 gassing of Iraqi Kurds.
But few expect he will escape justice. Still, human rights monitors like Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch warn the procedure must be above reproach and in accordance with international legal standards to be credible.
"I think it's absolutely essential that there be some way to bring Saddam Hussein and other top officials to justice," he said. "But, if it's not done in a way that comports with international fair trial standards, and if it's not seen to? perceived to be delivering justice, as opposed to vengeance, then it's going to have the opposite effect."
The concerns are not lost on Prime Minister Allawi.
"It will be an open trial. It will be an open court," he said.
Looking to other tribunals around the world that have held former leaders accountable for their actions, analysts stress the importance of a proper and public trial as a necessary part of Iraq's rehabilitation.