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Experts Debate Implications of Trying Saddam Hussein

As the first round of Iraqi elections approaches in January, observers are looking ahead to the next major milestone in Iraq's future, the upcoming trial of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Some international and legal experts say the process could take longer than some Iraqis might like, and the chief obstacle is the ongoing insurgency.

Saddam Hussein has been charged with serious crimes, including ethnic cleansing, gassing of Kurdish villagers, killing political opponents and invading Kuwait. Legal experts are still in the process of collecting evidence against the former Iraqi leader, who many believe was responsible for the deaths of close to 300,000 people during his 24 years in power. Just last month, investigators uncovered new proof of his atrocities in northern Iraq, in a mass grave containing hundreds of Kurdish women and children.

Tom Parker is the former British special advisor on Transitional Justice in Baghdad, and also headed the Coalition Provisional Authority's Crimes Against Humanity Investigation Unit. He says those in charge of the special tribunal attempted to convene a wide range of experts, including representatives of all groups who were victims of the now 67-year-old Iraqi dictator.

"We wanted to select people who represented the broadest geographic and temporal spread of the crimes committed against the Iraqi people," said Tom Parker. "That meant going back 20 to 30 years in some cases. We wanted to make sure we covered the massacre of the Barzani Kurds in the early '80s. We wanted to make sure we covered the Anfal campaign. We paid special attention to Halabja, the suppression of the Shia intifida of 1991, the invasion of Kuwait, the destruction of the Marsh Arabs, as well as taking into account the various persecution of political entities, primarily based in Baghdad."

Saddam Hussein will be tried by an independent Iraqi tribunal, staffed by several dozen Iraqi judges and magistrates, and he could face the death penalty if convicted.

Gary Bass is the author of a book about war tribunals and an assistant professor at Princeton University. He says Mr. Hussein's trial may provide healing for his victims, and will likely have an "eye-opening" effect on Sunni Arabs and former supporters of the Baath regime, many of whom still refuse to acknowledge that crimes were committed under Saddam Hussein's government.

"Something that often happens, that a war crimes trial will do - which I think is morally indecent but politically incredibly useful - is that it gives people from a perpetrator ethnic group an opportunity to say, 'Now we see this trial and the scales fall from our eyes and we realize all the horrible things that were being done,' " said Gary Bass. "Now, of course they all knew about it before, that was why they liked the regime and that was why they thought they could get patronage out of it. But you have all these South African whites who listened to the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and said, 'We are shocked, shocked to discover that apartheid was like, apartheid.' But it enables perpetrator groups to now say, 'We have broken from that pass. We take a turn forward.'"

The Sunni Arab minority had ruled Iraq since the formation of the Iraqi state in 1920, and prior to that under the Ottoman empire. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, who was himself a Sunni, the group has been concerned that it will be marginalized in the new Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi authorities believe former followers of Saddam Hussein from inside Iraq and from abroad are responsible for the ongoing insurgency in the central and southern regions of the country.

Mark Danner, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine and professor of human rights and journalism, says the insurgency remains the primary obstacle to stability in Iraq, and neither an election nor a war crimes trial is likely to change that.

"I don't think the insurgency will go away," he said. "And I think it is a bit of a fantasy to just say, 'Well, when the insurgency goes away and there is a trial, such and such will happen, and here is the scenario.' Because it isn't just going to go. This is going to be part of broader Iraqi politics."

Public opinion in a region largely ruled by the Sunnis is expected to take center stage as the proceedings unfold, and Arabic language television stations expect to broadcast the trial in its entirety. Noah Feldman, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, says the wider implications of the trial will be heard on the Arab street by viewers who live under dictatorial regimes in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

"The reaction will be to say - as each piece of evidence is introduced - there will be different reactions from different parts of society, but almost everyone will say 'Well, Saddam did these things," he said. "We are convinced of that because people in our own countries do these things, too. We are familiar with these things.' Then they'll say 'Why aren't our guys on trial?' Then they'll say one of several things. Some people will say 'Well, it's because the United States only intervenes once in a while when it is in its interest to intervene and they are friends with our government in country fill in the blank, so naturally, although our government engages in similar forms of torture and repression, they don't invade them."

Mr. Feldman also says that, if the trial goes on for months, it could lead to a more negative view of the United States in the region. He says a backlash effect could occur if viewers take note of the rising civilian death toll in Iraq and recall the abuses committed by American soldiers in the highly publicized Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Still, no date has been set for trial proceedings to begin. Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi has said he'd like the trial to start before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for January, but most experts believe it will take a lot longer to build the case against Saddam Hussein.

The discussion about Saddam Hussein's future trial took place at New York Univeristy, where Mr. Feldman is a law school professor.