By Edward Ellis
Christmas 1989 saw the arrest and summary execution of a brutal dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania. Just before Christmas 2003 we saw the final capture of another, even more monstrous, tyrant, Saddam Hussein.
Pictures of Saddam Hussein, bemused and humiliated, will probably be yet more "iconic" than the image of Ceausescu and his wife with bullets through their heads; the old bearded man with his mouth open will be an image that makes history. Would anyone shed tears if Saddam got the same fate as the butcher of Bucharest?
The Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies (ICRSS) surveyed 1,000 Iraqis from all over the country about their feelings on Saddam's capture. Sixteen per cent were "sad", 20% "confused"; but nearly 60% described their feeling as "overwhelming joy". This is why there were celebrations in the streets of Iraq. Eighty four per cent thought the dictator deserved a fair trial, and 60% that this should be by an Iraqi court, rather than some international tribunal. But fully 56% considered the appropriate punishment to be execution. (These results are reported at healingiraq.blogspot.com on 30 December.)
Many Iraqis were angry that Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, who were central to the dictatorship and lawless barbarian murderers, were killed in a firefight with the Americans. They wanted to see them in court. With Saddam, too, a public trial will almost certainly be a cathartic process for Iraq. So many people suffered under years of his rule, that a trial could be an opportunity for society to acknowledge, and maybe start to heal, some of that unspeakable pain. (His personal assumption of power is normally dated at 1979, but he was at the heart of the dictatorship from the Ba'thist coup of 1968.)
When terrible regimes fall, there is often such a process. After the fall of the Nazis, there were the Nuremburg Trials, which resulted in the execution of some of the senior figures of the regime. When apartheid was finally replaced by one person, one vote, in South Africa, there was a Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed the relatives of victims of the old regime (in some cases, as in Iraq, victims whose death or disappearance had never been acknowledged), to confront apartheid's secret policemen and torturers - the pay-off being an amnesty for the latter. No such "reconciliation" is likely in Iraq. In South Africa the justification for this process, rather than the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators, was healing the hatred between black and white citizens. Iraq, Sunnis/Shi'as and Arabs/Kurds notwithstanding, does not really have an analogue.
For the new American rulers of Iraq, a public trial has attendant dangers, not least that the US supported Iraq in the past, including when it was slaughtering Kurds - and current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was one of the worst offenders. A public trial might dig too deeply into American complicity in the dictatorship's crimes. The sheer complexity of giving Saddam a "fair trial", moreover - producing evidence of his crimes over decades - makes it unlikely it will be quick. Politically, if Saddam is to be tried it needs to be as soon as possible. This is harder, logistically, to ensure.
Commentators differ on whether Saddam's arrest will result in more, or less, guerrilla insurgency against the occupation. The ICRSS poll found that 53% thought resistance activity would decrease; 20% thought it would stop altogether (which has already proven false).
Of course, it is not just Saddam who needs to be put on trial. The US-backed Interim Governing Council includes people with unsavoury pasts - like Ayad Alawi, head of the Iraq National Accord, and recently one of the "rotating" presidents of the IGC, who defected from Saddam, but was responsible for crimes before his "change of heart".
But we should demand that Saddam be given a public trial. All those Iraqis who suffered under his regime should have the opportunity to present evidence, and not only against Saddam the individual, but against all those who inflicted torture, rape and mass slaughter on them for 30 years.