Sat, Oct 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The first Arab ruler to have to stand trial


Former president Saddam Hussein cherished and guarded his reputation as the seemingly invincible ruler of Iraq for decades. He survived several assassination attempts and even managed to portray defeats as victories.

The 68-year-old modelled himself on Saladin, the 12th-century general from Tikrit, like Saddam, who resisted the invasion of the Christian crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem for the Moslems in 1187.

Instead of triumphant victories, Saddam is now likely to be remembered as the first Arab ruler who had to answer to a criminal court for massive human-rights abuses committed under his reign.

The first group of his former victims to see justice are the residents of the village of Dujail north of Baghdad, where scores of people were punished, tortured and executed after an assassination attempt against the dictator in 1982.

As most of the Shiite attackers behind the plot managed to escape at the time, Saddam took his fury out on the rest of the villagers in a campaign of arbitrary violence. He bulldozed houses, torched fields and jailed hundreds of men, women and children for years in a prison in the desert. Dozens of people have remained missing.

However, survivors in Dujail found the death records of 148 executed villagers and passed them on to the prosecution in the criminal tribunal for the leaders of the former regime.

Coupled with the testimonies of witnesses who saw the attack on Saddam's convoy and the subsequent bombing of the village center by the air force, the evidence is intended to prove Saddam's guilt.

How did Saddam fall so far? Did the man, who unscrupulously fought his way from modest circumstances to the top of his country, genuinely miscalculate the US' intention to invade Iraq in spring 2003?

After all, Saddam had even survived an earlier crushing military defeat by the US in 1991, when his troops had invaded Kuwait. Witness reports from the small circle of power that surrounded Saddam in early 2003 indicate he was aware his days as president were numbered.

But his options were limited: the US was unwilling to negotiate, few of his own people wanted to fight a war on his behalf and if he had gone into exile he would have had to live in permanent fear that one of the thousands of his former enemies or victims would kill him one day.

In the end, he went back to Tikrit and hid on a farm, until US soldiers eventually found him on Dec. 13, 2003.

Many stories, legends and questions continue to surround his capture: was Saddam armed when he was found in an underground hideaway? Did the US soldiers use drugs to subdue him when they paraded the former strongman on television? And who betrayed him?

In his US-guarded cell, Saddam was later visited by some of his former political opponents who now belonged to the interim government.

A British newspaper published photos in last May which showed the once invincible dictator in his underpants.

During his first court appearance in July last year it became clear how important it was for Saddam to keep face.

"I am Saddam Hussein al-Majid, president of the Republic of Iraq," he said, only to add, "[US President George W.] Bush is a criminal."

Saddam faces the death penalty. Before the tribunal can proclaim its verdict, however, the ousted ruler will evoke fear one more time -- fear, that his trial will stir the extremists in the country, among them many of his supporters, to a new wave of attacks and violence.

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