US Prepares For Saddam's War Trial

by TChris

Justice Department personnel are heading to Iraq, where they will begin to build evidence for a war crimes prosecution of Saddam Hussein. While the administration envisions a trial conducted by Iraqi prosecutors, Condoleezza Rice authorized the Justice Department to take the lead in preparing the case.

The administration acknowledges the difficulty of "helping" the Iraqis without dominating the process and destroying the "independence" of the Iraqi authorities. But too much independence might prove inconvenient for a president hoping to capitalize on news coverage of Hussein's atrocities, allowing Bush to justify the war on that ground while shifting attention away from WMD's and the missing link to Osama bin Laden. To maximize its political value, the trial must take place before the election.

Salem Chalabi, the Iraqi lawyer in charge of the war crimes issue, said in a recent interview that while he understood the administration's political needs, the trials might not occur until late in the year, after the American elections, and that Mr. Hussein might not even be the first defendant.

Don't count on that kind of "independent" thinking prevailing after the Justice Department swarms in. The administration wants to put on a show as soon as it can.

M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born international lawyer who is an authority on the Arab legal world, said he believed that the United States was interested in orchestrating a wide-ranging Nuremberg-style war crimes trial against Mr. Hussein. "The administration is looking to have a political vindication of why the U.S. went into Iraq," he said. "With no weapons of mass destruction to be found, the next best thing is to show how bad Saddam was, how his regime was like the Nazis'."

Bassiouni and others worry that the approach may backfire by giving Hussein the opportunity to put on a show of his own, calling witnesses (Donald Rumsfeld?) to testify about U.S. support for Hussein at the time many of the atrocities were committed.

For his part, Mr. Hussein, who has been under interrogation by American officials since his capture on Dec. 14, has revealed little that could be used in any trial, government officials said in recent days. He has discussed few specific issues and at times comports himself as a head of state, the officials said.

The administration had hoped to gather useful information from Hussein before putting him on trial, but that no longer seems likely. Now the question is whether Hussein is competent to stand trial.

He has given vague responses to questions about whether his country possessed illicit weapons, said one official who described the situation on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mr. Hussein, who is in custody in an undisclosed location in the Baghdad area, often couched his statements about Iraq's international relations as if he were still a head of state.

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