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Saddam Execution May Take Toll on Situation in Iraq

December 29, 2006 at 6:15 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on all this, we now go to Diane Orentlicher, a professor of international law at American University, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of a book about the occupation called “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” He’s an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, formerly the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief.

Welcome to both of you.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, Author, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rajiv, what’s your analysis of the confusion today and what looks like a rush to an execution?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I’m not sure it had to be this confusing. It all got started with some of Saddam’s lawyers telling the wire services and television networks that he’d been transferred to American custody. And this may just be a big semantic issue here.

All along, Saddam has been technically in the custody of the — well, he’s been held and guarded by Americans. He has been in the legal custody of the Iraqis. I’m sorry if I misspoke earlier. Saddam’s lawyers said he had been transferred to Iraqi custody, in anticipation of an execution.

So there might not have actually been anything happening other than American officials saying to his lawyers, “Well, we can’t say when you can come and see him or deal with these final issues, because that’s up to the Iraqis to decide.” And I think it sort of snowballed out of proportion.

But it is very clear that Saddam is in his last hours: The final preparations are being made. They have issued a red card to him, which is one of the last steps before somebody is sent to the gallows.

I think Iraq’s current government really wants to move with alacrity here, because I think they believe that this will be an important symbolic moment.

And Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government is facing some uncertainties back in Iraq, their efforts to try to cobble together a new political coalition. He’s facing some dissension from members of his party, most notably a political bloc headed by Muqtada al-Sadr.

This will certainly be an event that he hopes I think will galvanize the country, particularly the Sunni and Shiite communities, and even some moderate Sunnis there, and the Kurds. So I think that’s why you’ve seen this kind of quick movement toward an execution, even though there’s sort of a 30-day window in which this can take place.

Background of Saddam's trial

Diane Orentlicher
American University
When this whole process of trials began, it wasn't envisaged that the Dujail case would end up being the only case that Saddam Hussein was judged for.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Diane, remind us of exactly what this case was about for which he's being executed, because this was not exactly the way these legal cases were supposed to unfold.

DIANE ORENTLICHER, American University: Well, this particular case involved an episode in a town called Dujail in 1982. Saddam Hussein had been visiting the town, and there was an assassination attempt, obviously unsuccessful.

But there was a severe retaliation by Saddam Hussein and his codefendants. Some 148 people were executed summarily, most of them after sham proceedings.

So this was a trial of that case. The principal defendants were charged and convicted of crimes against humanity, which is a very serious international offense.

You're quite right that, when this whole process of trials began, it wasn't envisaged that the Dujail case would end up being the only case that Saddam Hussein was judged for. In fact, it was selected ultimately as the first trial, because it was understood to be a relatively straightforward and relatively simple case to prosecute.

It was relatively simple partly because there was strong evidence, but mainly because it wasn't one of the great, big massacres or campaigns that involved hundreds of thousands of victims.

And so, in a sense, it was seen as providing an opportunity for a new experimental court to try itself out and to correct its own mistakes before it took on the big cases, the really big cases. It looks like it's going to be the only case that Saddam Hussein will be convicted for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was there a moment when it became clear that this would be the only case for which he himself would be tried?

DIANE ORENTLICHER: Well, there have been political pressures from the outset, from before the Dujail case began, for the court to move quickly toward prosecution.

And even before this case began, at the highest levels of government, authorities in Iraq have said he should be tried quickly and executed quickly. And those kinds of statements were heard even before the first day of trial.

Those kinds of statements and pressures have escalated, as Rajiv indicated, particularly in recent months, as the security situation has continued to spiral downward. The political incentives for government leaders to see Saddam Hussein sort of summarily dealt with once and for all have increased. And so the writing has been on the wall for a while.

Saddam's current importance in Iraq

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Author
There is, in some pockets of Iraq, a growing nostalgia for Saddam Hussein, particularly among Iraq's Sunnis, who feel themselves persecuted by the Shiite-led government

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Rajiv, we heard Nancy Youssef in the earlier interview talk about the different ways and the ambivalence that Saddam is seen today. How important a figure is he in Iraq?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, certainly for many of Iraq's Shiites and Kurds, which were so repressed during his nearly three decades of authoritarian rule, I think this will be, you know, a key moment of closure for them.

At the same time, you know, there is, in some pockets of Iraq, a growing nostalgia for Saddam Hussein, particularly among Iraq's Sunnis, who feel themselves persecuted by the Shiite-led government, and even...

JEFFREY BROWN: Because of the violence now?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Because of the violence now, and also you have Iraqis looking back and saying, "Well, you know, under Saddam's days, we had more electricity. There was more security. I had a job."

And, of course, some of this is sort of looking back with rose-tinted glasses. And these sorts of periods of nostalgia are common in any political transition. You had it in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. You had it in Eastern European countries. And it may only be a short-term thing.

But, you know, that does manifest itself today in Iraq. And that may well be a short- to medium-term result of this. You may start to see more Iraqis sort of looking back at the Saddam years and saying, "Well, it wasn't so bad after all."

And, in fact, you know, when you look at the record, it was pretty bad. It was quite awful. I mean, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, tortured, imprisoned. He was a ruthless man, but you still have those views that spring up organically among various communities in Iraq.

Remaining charges

Diane Orentlicher
American University
These trials that are meant to be a reckoning of the rule of law, a reinforcement of these values, playing out against a backdrop of just unspeakable violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as that kind of thinking goes on, what happens with these other cases from the past, but thinking about reconciliation or what might happen in the future? What happens to the other war crimes cases?

DIANE ORENTLICHER: There are two parts to that question. What technically happens is that other cases will go forward, but Saddam Hussein won't be in the dock.

So there will continue to be a case involving the Anfal campaign against Kurds. That was the campaign in the late 1980s in which 100,000 or more Kurds are believed to have been exterminated by the regime. So that will go forward, but without Saddam Hussein.

The sort of bigger question about what significance this trial has I think is sort of really the most important question right now. The process that was envisaged has already in a sense been derailed.

These trials were hoped to be, in a sense, a cornerstone of a new dispensation, where the rule of law replaced the rule of tyranny. And there was supposed to be a rather comprehensive reckoning with the past. And it was also understood that these trials would, by demonstrating respect for the rule of law, help instill respect for the rule of law in Iraq.

The most striking thing about these trials is that they have unfolded -- there are two that have begun -- they've unfolded against a backdrop of extraordinary violence. And so there's this sort of tragic irony, which is really an understatement.

You see this trial, these trials that are meant to be a reckoning of the rule of law, a reinforcement of these values, playing out against a backdrop of just unspeakable violence.

And I've been very struck throughout this trial and the other one that's under way that it's almost impossible to read a report, a media report, about what's going on in the trials of Saddam Hussein without those same reports simultaneously reporting another record-breaking level of violence elsewhere in Iraq.

Potential impact of his death

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Author
Saddam's execution is not going to be the magic bullet that perhaps Iraqi officials think it might be, in terms of dealing a death blow to the insurgency.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that violence and the anticipation of tomorrow, and tomorrow after that, what do you see in the streets?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, look, I think there may be a short-term spike in violence, but I think, when you look at it over a longer period of time, the insurgency has really moved beyond Saddam Hussein.

The Sunni men who are fighting against the Iraqi government and the presence of U.S. forces in that country are doing so for a number of reasons: for religious reasons; for monetary reasons; because they chafe at the presence of foreign forces on Iraqi soil.

They're not really doing so because of any great loyalty to Saddam Hussein. So Saddam's execution is not going to be the magic bullet that perhaps Iraqi officials think it might be, in terms of dealing a death blow to the insurgency.

And, at the same time, it's also not going to be a magic bullet for the Bush administration, which is desperately searching for a new path forward in Iraq and trying to assemble a new policy, which will be announced, I suppose, in the coming days.

You know, the death of Saddam, it seems unlikely that it will, for instance, galvanize American support for a continued presence in Iraq or palpably change public opinion in this country.

So I think that, you know, for both sides here, in both the United States and in Iraq, this may not have as significant of an impact over the medium term or even the long term.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Diane Orentlicher, thank you both very much.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Thank you.

DIANE ORENTLICHER: Thank you.