THE SENTENCE OF death passed on Saddam Hussein on 5 November for crimes against humanity was something of an anti-climax three-and-a-half years after US-led forces toppled the Iraqi dictator and his grotesque regime. Saddam was pretty much a dead man the moment he was dragged from his spider hole hideout near Baghdad in December 2003.
Even though he still has to face other charges, particularly the genocidal Anfal (Spoils of War) campaign against the rebellious Kurds in 1988-89, in which some 180,00 men women and children perished, many of them slaughtered by chemical weapons, Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has said Saddam could hang within the next few months. There is no doubt more than a whiff of vengeance about this.
Maliki is a Shi'ite, whose co-religionists suffered as much as the Kurds under Saddam and his Sunni-dominated regime. Maliki is also a veteran of the ad-Dawa (The Call) party, which waged an underground war against Saddam for decades in which thousands of its members and their families were imprisoned, tortured or murdered by Saddam's killers.
The Shi'ites and Kurds are howling for Saddam's blood. They want revenge for decades of brutal oppression. They want to see him at the end of the hangman's rope.
Maliki would have faced the intense wrath of his own community had Saddam been acquitted or given a lesser sentence for the systematic elimination of 148 Shi'ites blamed for an attempt to assassinate the dictator in 1982. Letting Saddam off the hook would have doomed Maliki's efforts to bring the increasingly murderous Shi'ite militias under control.
The Sunnis, who lost their power and privileges when Saddam was toppled, are more ambivalent, but there are fears that executing Saddam will intensify the current surge in sectarian slaughter between the Sunnis and Shi'ites that will give Iraq that final nudge into all-out civil war and probably disintegration.
And amid the political upheaval in the United States by the Democratic Party's sweep in mid-term congressional elections that gave it majorities in both houses, and the impact this might have on the Bush administration's chaotic Iraq policy, Saddam's fate could well be sealed. Few will mourn him.
There are many in Washington who would not like to see Saddam back in court testifying about the support he got from President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, at a time when the Iraqi leader was slaughtering his fellow citizens in their thousands with nerve gas and other poisons.
It was clear that the Iraqi judges were pressured by the US to announce their verdict against Saddam in the final run-up to mid-term elections, a last desperate throw by the Bush administration to win votes for the Republicans. It is ironic--and it may not be accidental--that Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's ex-secretary of defence and one of the key architects of the Iraq debacle, was dumped as the scapegoat for the Republican's defeat at the polls.
For it was Rumsfeld who, as Reagan's personal envoy on Iraq, flew to Baghdad several times, starting in December 1983 and through March 1984--while Iraq was at war with Iran, a war generally considered to have been started by Iraq's 1980 invasion of its neighbour--to open a back channel to Saddam and to reassure him that despite public condemnation of the use of chemical weapons the US administration stood firmly behind him.
In the final analysis, Reagan played a decisive role in Saddam's survival. So the Americans may not be too keen on having Saddam go on trial again on the Anfal charges since at the time of the Baathist regime's systematic slaughter of the Kurds, the US turned a blind eye to his use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Despite Rumsfeld's intimate involvement with the Saddam regime, he has, as far as is known, never been publicly questioned on his role in aiding Baghdad--and no mainstream media has ever brought it up since the April 2003 invasion. A photo dated 20 December 1983 showing Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam has also been notably absent in media reports of Saddam's trial.
However, official US documents obtained in December 2003 by the US National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act have provided illuminating behind-the-scenes detail of Rumsfeld's trips to Baghdad. These include a cable from George Shultz, then US secretary of state, to Rumsfeld in which he said his task was to impress on Saddam that the Reagan administration's efforts "to improve bilateral relations, at a pace of Iraq's choosing" remained "undiminished. This message bears reinforcing during your discussions".
At that time, Washington viewed Saddam's regime as a bulwark against Iran, which the Reagan administration believed threatened to destabilise Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as well as Jordan and Egypt. Publicly, the Americans took a neutral stance in the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq. But in 1982 the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department's blacklist of states aiding terrorism. And all the time it turned a blind eye to Iraq's use of chemical weapons (not just against Iran but Iraqi Kurds) and provided it with secret support against Iran.
This involved a constant stream of critical intelligence--including data relayed to the Iraqi military from US-manned airborne surveillance aircraft leased to Saudi Arabia--that blunted several major Iranian offensives as well as large amounts of military materiel. This included chemicals and other material worth $1.5bn that were used to make poisons and deadly biological agents.
America's allies also found Iraqi petrodollars irresistible. French weaponry, British precision machine tools and Germany dual-use technology also helped Saddam build his chemical and biological warfare programmes. The US provided loan guarantees worth some $5bn to Baghdad that amounted to a massive subsidy with which Saddam bought weapons and technology. George Bush the elder continued these practices, and almost right up to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the first Bush administration was pushing to deliver further loan guarantees, despite, according to the Los Angeles Times, "evidence that Iraq had used the aid illegally to help finance a secret arms procurement network to obtain technology for its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programme".
Still, 20 years later, George W. Bush cited Saddam's propensity for "invading his neighbours" and his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction as justification for invading Iraq and toppling a regime that earlier administrations, including his father's had courted as an ally and which, even after the 1991 Gulf War, the New York Times said held, with its allies, the "strikingly unanimous view that whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country's stability than did those who have suffered his repression".
The Bush administration, along with US allies in Europe and the Middle East, has no wish for past American dealings with Saddam to emerge in open court, not to mention the ill-fated rebellions by Iraqi Shi'ites and Kurds against Saddam in the aftermath of Iraq's 1991 Gulf War defeat that Bush's father had encouraged and then turned his back on, leaving tens of thousands to perish under the onslaught of Saddam's Republican Guard.
So it is unlikely in the extreme that George W. Bush or any of his associates who so assiduously and deviously made the case for invading Iraq will do anything to prevent Saddam's execution.
The Iraqi tribunal that tried Saddam has been widely criticised as little more than "victor's justice". Its legitimacy was questioned as soon as it was set up by the Coalition Provisional Authority in December 2003. According to Hanny Megally of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, which had observers monitoring Saddam's trial: "Legitimacy questions were further exacerbated by concerns about the court's independence, raised in reaction to the blatant efforts of Iraqi politicians to interfere in its affairs, change its personnel, and even to dictate prosecutorial strategies."
The assassination of several defence lawyers and the court's dependence on the US for funding, evidence-gathering and even training, did nothing to eliminate such concerns. This is likely to go on and distrust of the Americans will continue to proliferate.
Rumsfeld's nominated successor, Robert Gates, who was a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official under Bush the elder, was also a player in these affairs. As defence secretary, the suspicion that the Americans have things to hide will linger. It will be interesting to see whether any mention is made of this during congressional hearings on Gates' nomination.
During October 1991 hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on his nomination as CIA director, neither Gates nor any intelligence witness mentioned his participation in these events in the 1980s. At that time he was a senior aide to then-CIA director William Casey, a clandestine cowboy if ever there was one, and was in charge of preparing high-value intelligence data for transfer to Saddam's regime.…