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Hard evidence called tough to find

Group: Hussein rarely signed specific orders

WASHINGTON -- More than 6 million pages of Iraqi government documents collected by a group of Iraqi exiles contain "smoking gun" evidence against "virtually everyone" in the Ba'ath Party leadership -- except Saddam Hussein.


Despite the fact that Hussein's regime meticulously documented its own abuses -- cataloging everything from the names of wives who informed on their husbands to Iraqi schoolchildren whose relatives had been killed by the regime -- Hussein himself was more prone to issue broad pronouncements than specific orders, said Hassan Mneimneh of The Iraq Memory Foundation.

The foundation has gathered an extensive archive of communiques and reports which it expects to become key evidence in upcoming war-crimes trials of Iraqi leaders, along with some documentary evidence from Human Rights Watch and a group called Indict. But the lack of documents specifically linking Hussein to the crimes could make it more difficult for prosecutors to hold him personally responsible for the regime's atrocities, Mneimneh said.

"Saddam Hussein seems to have been shielded by degrees of separation from the crime, " said Mneimneh."Saddam elevated himself to a deity-like status. You rarely would find his signature on anything of a specific nature. He did not concern himself with details."

In the days since Hussein's capture, there has been speculation about the specifics of the tribunal -- but little concern over whether prosecutors would be able to prove their case. While few legal specialists doubted that Hussein would be punished, some said the lack of documents, combined with questions about the extent to which his underlings would testify against him, could make the trial a legal challenge.

"No direct documentary evidence -- no smoking gun in writing -- makes it harder," said Neil J. Kritz, director of the Rule of Law Program at the United States Institute of Peace. "But it is quite posssible that the prosecution can find more than adequate evidence that can stand up in court."

Detlev Vagts, a Harvard University international law professor, said that if prosecutors don't find documentary evidence, that would make testimony from Hussein's former deputies and other key witnesses that much more important.

"The next question is what can be shaken out of them, how loyal will they be," Vagts said, adding that prosecutors may offer immunity or reduced sentences in some cases in exchange for the testimony. "They might have had quite a hard time producing a link between Adolf Hitler and the death camps if Hitler had stayed around to be tried. Nobody had ever found a memorandum from Hilter, saying `Do it.' "

Investigators may well still find documents linking Hussein to mass graves, the killings of Shi'ites and Marsh Arabs after the first Gulf War, and the 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja. Countless documents, many of them handwritten in Arabic, are still being studied in Iraq by US weapons inspectors, Kritz said.

But yesterday, at a breakfast panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Mneimneh and Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor and Iraqi author, said that Hussein's style made it harder to find such proof.

Their archive, collected under the umbrella of Harvard University, contains ample evidence against nearly all of the 55 Iraqis that the US military has declared "most wanted," including orders for collective massacres issued by Hussein's half-brother and political adviser, Ali Hassan al-Majid, and orders for extrajudicial killings by Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, former intelligence head and Hussein's other half-brother, Mneimneh said.

But the documents signed by Hussein are far less specific, such as his order giving al-Majid -- also known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged use of chemical weapons on Kurds -- "extraordinary powers," Makiya said.

Makiya, who is trying to get the US-appointed Iraq Governing Council to pass a law preserving all documents from the former regime, warned that the files -- invaluable for the trials and for history -- are in danger of disappearing.

"The documents are being seriously abused," said Makiya. "There are those who are selling documents. Others are being given away."

In the absence of documents and witnesses directly linking Hussein to the crimes, Hussein could always be held accountable for abuses committed by his subordinates, experts said.

Charlie Savage of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Farah Stockman can be reached at

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