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Trial could cast war in new light

WASHINGTON -- The coming trial of Saddam Hussein will blanket world media with the daily evocation of decades of atrocities, potentially recasting the Iraq war from a campaign rationalized by the still-unproven threat of weapons of mass destruction to a moral undertaking justified by ending his regime's massive human rights abuses.


Had Hussein been killed by US soldiers, his final chapter would have made headlines for only a few days. But the improbable fact that he allowed himself to be taken alive offers President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain the opportunity to watch their critics squirm under a sustained flow of headlines that will emphasize the humanitarian argument for their war -- even if it was not the one they most often articulated before the fighting.

While the president yesterday offered only a pledge that the trial will be public and "stand international scrutiny," war supporters envision a televised tribunal, replete with the surviving victims and relatives of the dead offering riveting testimony of torture, massacre, and other personal encounters with horror -- thus obliging opponents to reconsider their assertions that it was a mistake to invade Iraq.

"Without ever appearing to be partisan, but merely by cataloging Saddam's numerous heinous crimes . . . it will become implicit in a lot of people's minds that this was a terrible person and that toppling and catching him was undoubtedly a moral and practical good," said John Hulsman of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "That undermines the moralism at the base of left-wing opposition to the president's Iraq policy. It hits them where they live."

Political analysts doubt that hard-core opponents to the war will be ultimately swayed by that logic, but most acknowledge that the crucial bloc of the undecided, who swing elections, would be more likely to be persuaded.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of politics, predicted that supporters of the US occupation of Iraq would schedule the trial with politics in mind.

There is the chance, however, the trial will not play smoothly for supporters of US policy. Depending on how far back the charges go and how much opportunity Hussein is given to defend himself, he could try to implicate the United States in his crimes, said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of the antiwar protest coalition United for Peace and Justice.

"If all that comes out during the trial is the crimes that Saddam committed -- and I'm not saying those shouldn't come out -- then I think it could serve to buttress the Bush administration," she said. "But if it also comes out about the role of the US in setting up that regime, then I think there will be even greater questioning about why this war happened and why this occupation is going on and what the real interests of the US are at this point."

Yesterday, Iran said that it is preparing a criminal complaint over Hussein's war crimes from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which about 300,000 Iranians were killed -- including many who died in chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqi Army. Iraq was supported by the United States -- and many other nations -- when Hussein invaded Iran the year after its radical Islamic revolution. According to the Arab-language television network Al-Jazeera, an Iranian spokesman said yesterday that after the Iraqis try their former dictator, an international court "should determine who equipped this dictator to disrupt our region."

But despite that risk, others contend that the trial will have a positive effect on Arab perceptions of the war.

Ruth Wedgwood, a Johns Hopkins University professor of international law, said the truth-commissionlike nature of the investigation into Hussein's violence will "destroy the idea that this man could purport to represent Iraqi sovereignty" in the Middle East, where the "Arab street" remains bitterly opposed to the US invasion.

"This will certainly validate the view of the war as necessary to displace someone who is really a first-class human rights violator," she said. "I also think that will have a good effect on the region because even if Saddam Hussein was numero uno in brutality, watching another head of state go on trial for human rights violations could have a salutory effect on Syria, the Saudis, and the Iranians."

Inside the United States, the capture and coming trial of Hussein may be giving an "immediate public relations advantage for the prowar faction," said Tony Kireopoulos, associate general secretary for international affairs and peace for the National Council of Churches. But he said the problems created by the war will not vanish despite the competing story line.

The human rights justification "was really a third and distant reason for entering into this war," after purported weapons of mass destruction and links to the Al Qaeda terror network, "and it still begs the questions of how long our troops will be there," he said.

Nevertheless, a "very interesting shift in the mental atmosphere" among some liberal war opponents may already be underway, according to Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. While it's important to remember that human rights was not the government's chief motive, others who supported the war from the beginning on human-rights grounds -- including himself -- have started feeling "vindicated" since the announcement that the former dictator will face trial.

"His human rights violations were a scandal, but no one was actually prepared to support military force to topple him," Ignatieff said. "There's some funny shift in the ground here. Liberal opponents of the war always understood that there was a human rights ground for getting rid of him, but said, you know, `We can't trust Bush' or `We don't like violence,' or whatever their reason was. I think everybody has just remembered that he's an extremely bad guy and it's good to get rid of him."

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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