TOPICS > Politics

Report on Saddam’s Arraignment

July 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. It’s been 24 hours now. Tell us, how is the Saddam Hussein hearing playing in Iraq?

JOHN BURNS: I think it’s going to be a long time before we or the Iraqi people really know what to make of this. Their responses are very complicated. A society traumatized for 35 years, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, and yet this colossus of a figure towering over them and suddenly reduced to a pitiable man in an ill- fitting, store-bought suit. What to make of it? An offense against their national pride in some respects? Yes. A catharsis? Yes. A measure of how far the country has to go to return to some semblance of normality? All of these things. You can find every response you want to out amongst ordinary Iraqis, but if you put the question very simply: Are they happy that the man is being brought to justice? The answer is, in my estimation, overwhelmingly yes.

MARGARET WARNER: What was the coverage and the commentary like? For instance, how was his defiance portrayed? As confidence or as just bluster and braggadocio, or both ways?

JOHN BURNS: It depends where you read, of course. Here there is a very broad press, attributed, in fact, to the freedoms that America brought here, and there are some that regard this as being a humiliation, who think it should have been an international war crimes trial. There are others — and I think they’re in the majority — who acclaim what really was just a first small step on a very long process.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re reading here that there were some demonstrations on both sides today: A pro-Saddam demonstration in Samara, a larger anti-Saddam demonstration in Baghdad. Is the government at all concerned that, in fact, just reviving his image and his figure, he’s such a polarizing figure that it could inflame the insurgency or inflame tensions?

JOHN BURNS: No, I don’t think the government is concerned. I think the government feels, this government, in any event, that the issue is a very clear one. The head of this government, Iyad al-Allawi, himself survived an assassination attempt in London by Saddam. The man I sat next to at the trial yesterday, Mr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security advisor, complained through the afternoon as he watched Saddam of the back pains he still suffers since he was dragged from the operating table in Baghdad, where he was a surgeon in 1979, and hanged from the ceiling of one of the torture chambers. These people, the interim government people — and they’re drawn from a fairly wide cross-section of Iraqi society — are pretty clear in their minds of who Saddam was, that he was an enemy of the Iraqi people, an enemy of everything they want to achieve, and that they feel that by putting his record squarely in front of Iraqi people — who in the main are going to be surprised, we feel, at the extent of what they learn — can only be of benefit to the cause, if you will, I won’t say of democratic government, but of a government that can truly represent the people of Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And why was it one of the very first public, if not the first big public official act that this new interim government took in this first week of the hand-over?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think you have to understand the congruence of two things here. The occupation is deeply unpopular. There’s no question about that, and part of that is America’s fault. It’s been badly handled in many respects. But Iraqis, for all that they’ve existed as a modern nation state for less than a century, have a deep sense of national pride. So they wanted the occupation to end. They want to own their own country again and they want to own the prosecution of Saddam Hussein. So this government wanted to make a symbolic step in doing that. What we were seeing yesterday was, in my mind, emblematic of that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we heard Saddam Hussein try to portray this court as just a puppet of the occupation. How was the court portrayed in the media there? As an independent Iraqi court or as simply a creature of the American occupation?

JOHN BURNS: Well, again, it depends where you read. In my judgment, the more responsible Iraqi newspapers see it much as we do, as a complex venture financed by the United States, underpinned by American legal experts, headed by an Iraqi judge. It’s a hybrid. It’s an uncomfortable hybrid in many respects, operating under Iraqi criminal law and international humanitarian law. So the reviews have been mixed.

But if I can speak personally, having been in that court and having sat for five hours watching Saddam Hussein and these other men being passed through, I would say that the proceedings were as just and as fair as I have seen in any court, and it’s certainly far too soon to condemn it, in my mind, in a kind of an intellectually lazy way, as victors’ justice.

There were two groups of people at that trial yesterday. There was Saddam Hussein, we know his story: “I’m the president of Iraq.” He rejected all as an American-puppeteered adventure. The other 11 were very different. These men were in the main, meek and accepting and very, very relieved, as I judged it, when they were read their rights, rights which would have been unimaginable under them: right to counsel, right to silence, right to have a counsel provided by the state if they couldn’t afford it. And one of them, and if I recall correctly, it was Chemical Ali — Ali al-Majid, the man responsible, so the indictments say, for the chemical poisoning of the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people died and many other, by the way, poison gas attacks, too — he said after his rights had been read to him, “these are excellent.”

And he wasn’t the only one, by any means, who said this. I think they came into that courtroom frightened, fearful — fearful that they might be treated, after all, as they had treated others. And the fright and the fear could be seen in the welling up of tears in the eyes, in the response to the reading of Article 406 of the Iraqi criminal code, which provides for the death penalty, but also relief when they began to get the idea that they may actually get a fair trial.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, John, just your personal impressions. You were one of only three Western reporters in that courtroom — your impressions of Saddam Hussein?

JOHN BURNS: My impression was, and I think it’s something that Rebecca West, for example, would have recognized from her experiences at Nuremberg in 1946 and ’47. Our colleagues who covered the war crimes trials in the Hague would see, is the smallness of these men, the ordinariness of them when they had their power stripped away from them, their uniforms, their berets, their pistols at the hip. They seemed pitiable to me. They seemed, to be honest with you, the sort of men that if you sit beside them at a bus stop in the rain, you wouldn’t be able to remember. And you ask yourself looking at them — and in this, I include Mr. Hussein — how could these ordinary people, these utterly banal people, have risen to such extremes of power? How could they have visited such a disaster on their own people?

MARGARET WARNER: So his power, his charisma, that so many Iraqis saw, didn’t come through to you?

JOHN BURNS: No. I mean, I think — I think you would had to have seen the whole of his performance yesterday to make that sort of a judgment. I think the television images people saw were mainly of the admonishment and the bluster — “I am the president of Iraq.” There was a lot else that didn’t get so much play: the fearfulness, the nervousness, the anxiety, the disorientation, the confusion of this man, who was a colossus in the minds of his people. It’s very hard for people who have not been here to understand the trauma he inflicted on Iraqis, trauma which will be many, many years in the lifting. And he did — he, too, seemed to me to be a pitiable soul in many respects. We can say of him, I think on the basis of yesterday’s performance, that if any one of them is going to fight back, seriously fight back at the trial, it’s likely to be him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. John Burns, thank you very much. It’s great to have you again.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Margaret.