The New Republic Online
Court Side
by Tamara Chalabi

Post date: 12.15.05
Issue date: 12.26.05

Baghdad, Iraq

The crowd of spectators at the Iraqi High Tribunal on December 5 included a mixture of Iraqis--general assembly members and civil society activists--and Westerners. Among the Iraqis was a soft-spoken, pious woman named Shaza. Last year, Shaza recounted to me in detail her torture in prison as a 15-year-old, with her mother and younger siblings, after the Mukhabarat secret service had taken her father in broad daylight from their comfortable Baghdad home, never to be seen again. She wears a perpetual expression of subdued pain on her face, betraying her otherwise determined effort to make Iraq a better place. 

As we were being searched for the final time before entering the main court hall, Shaza turned around and said that she couldn't sleep after seeing Saddam Hussein refuse to identify himself to the court on the trial's opening day in October. "They are conning the Iraqi people with this court; this isn't about us," I overheard her say as I discussed the court's problems--its lack of communication with the wider public, its administrative issues--with a human rights observer. (Full disclosure: my cousin, Salem Chalabi, was formerly the administrator for the special tribunal trying Saddam, but he is no longer affiliated with the court; my father, Ahmed Chalabi, is a deputy prime minister of Iraq.) This contrast between the two women, Shaza and the human rights observer, one concerned with due process and the other with the pain of the millions of victims in Iraq, highlighted the schizophrenic atmosphere surrounding the trial. There are as many contesting interests here as there are in Iraq at large. Saddam became Iraq and he made Iraq become him; he was not only big brother, but big father. For most of the 26 million Iraqis, his trial represents decades of looking into the past--a history that has been interrupted, filled with horrors, and experienced firsthand. They will never get another chance. For others like me, who were exiled from Iraq, it has been a history denied. Both are severe plights. 


Sealed off by a glass windowpane that overlooks the court, the gallery we sat in was more Shaftesbury Avenue matinee than criminal court. While waiting, the MPs said triumphantly to each other, "What time does the film begin? We've waited 35 years; I guess we can wait a bit more." The curtains were drawn, the judge walked in, everyone rose (except Saddam's defense team), we were seated again, and the show began. Saddam was omnipresent, even before he entered the courtroom, the last of eight defendants accused of the 1982 massacre in Dujail, a mostly Shia town north of Baghdad where more than 140 people were killed after he escaped an assassination attempt there. When he walked in, casually and with measure, all his cronies stood up in respect. "I greet the men," he blurted. It was ironic given how unmanly they looked, slight and small. And it was difficult to imagine that they could have unleashed horrors on the Iraqi people ... until they began to speak. 

Although everyone had seen him in court on television, in person, Saddam still generated excitement. Several in the gallery could not contain themselves and started cursing him. Shaza was visibly shaken at the sight of him. 

The defense team paralleled Saddam in its behavior, obstructionism being the order of the day. Sitting there were Iraqis, Jordanians, and, of course, Ramsey Clark. The former U.S. attorney general joined the defense team in rising when Saddam walked in, seemingly oblivious to the internal dynamic between these men, the legacy of the leader still lingering on. 

The team includes Qatar's former justice minister, Najeeb Nuaimi, whose main focus was to delay witnesses from speaking. His rendition of Iraq's recent history was infused with the sort of Arab nationalist rhetoric that Saddam force-fed his people: Saddam is still the president of Iraq, a great Arab leader; the court is illegal because it was set up under U.S. military occupation (there was no acknowledgment of an elected government, albeit interim). Nuaimi personified Iraq's dilemma with its Arab neighbors--insulted and rejected by them for celebrating the fall of the tyrant whose sting the Arabs never felt. Saddam looked at the Qatari approvingly and then followed in a hoarse voice, "Long live the Arab nation." His half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan Al Tikriti, added, "Long live Iraq, long live the Baath." They sounded like two unruly kindergarteners disobeying their teacher. It was also an insult to the leading judge, who is Kurdish. 

This trial is so much more for Iraqis than an exercise in justice. The court has become a battleground for the new Iraq, a tug-of-war between persistent Baathist ideologies, exemplified by Saddam and his defense team and the fragile structure of Iraqi "democracy"--besides the Kurdish judge, four other judges, drawn from various segments of Iraqi society, preside over Saddam's trial, with behind-the-scenes support from the United States and the United Kingdom. It will be a fine balance managing all these expectations. 

Back in the gallery, emotions were running high. One government official literally jumped out of his seat when he heard Saddam. "What Arab nation? Look what you did to us!" he retorted as he was restrained by the court security. I sympathized with him and felt impotent not being able to shake the judge into more firmness. Shaza was comforted by hearing the hoarseness in Saddam's voice; it was a sign that he was unwell. "At least the world can see him for what he is: a criminal. This is how he shouted at us after the 1991 uprising--I remember him so well, insulting the people of the south," she said. 

During the court's first adjournment, we waited in the corridor, guided by American advisers and Western-trained Iraqis. One over-enthusiastic adviser kept repeating robotically, "This is democracy, people will appreciate this several years down the line.... This is democracy." I could not help but think how patronizing he was, even though I agreed with his general premise that a fair trial is an important foundation for the new Iraq. Except it is a crooked foundation, because, to Iraqis, the fairness and justice to which he referred looked lopsided in favor of Saddam. 

The trial resumed and the judge called the first witness, a man who had been ready to testify a week earlier but was prevented from doing so by Saddam's lawyers. A 38-year-old with graying hair walked in with a picture of some of the victims of Dujail. The moment of reckoning had come. For the first time in the history of Iraq, here was a witness standing in court with Saddam and accusing him of his crimes. Silence fell as Ahmad Hassan Mohammed began to speak. He lost seven of his ten brothers to Saddam. He spoke with the patience that comes from having waited so long for justice. One could tell he had rehearsed this moment in his mind a million times, a fantasy that one day would become a reality. He read a small prayer for the victims of Dujail, infused with references to the Shia imams, which must have sounded strange to the rest of the Arab-speaking TV viewers in the region. It struck me then how different Iraq is from its Arab neighbors, a country comprising groups that are predominately minorities outside its borders. As Ahmad Mohammed raised the picture of the victims and held it up for everyone to see, Barzan blurted out, "To hell with them." It spoke volumes. Barzan, after all, had once been Iraq's human rights representative at the United Nations in Geneva. 

The story of Dujail, its lush green palm-tree gardens and its many dead, unfolded. One story I can't forget is of Ahmad Mohammed's relative, whose infant son was dying from malnutrition in her cell. She appealed to a guard for help. The guard's only suggestion was that, when the child died, she should give it to him through the cell's small window so that his body wouldn't decay there. The boy died, and that is exactly what she did. He was speaking for so many Iraqis in that moment. Several people in the gallery were weeping. So, too, were a few court staff sitting in the panel below the judges facing Saddam and his men. Saddam did not flinch. 

The interaction between the witness and the defendants was bizarre. It summed up the disdain and disrespect of Saddam's regime for the Iraqis. Every time the witness reached a crescendo of detailed gore, one of the defendants interjected, almost subconsciously. When Ahmad Mohammed referred to the tragedy of Karbala, a massacre that serves as an axiom of Shiism, he said that, even then, there was closure after 40 days--all the body parts were finally buried--but there was none in Dujail, where so many are still missing. Whether it was the reference to Karbala or to his own role in the Dujail massacre, Barzan shouted, "I am the head of the Mukhabarat! I am a patriot, not an Iranian like you." And there it was: the curse of Iraq's Arab Shia. Not good enough to be Arabs because they are Shia, the curse that led to so many being massacred by Saddam and deported to Iran. First, Saddam and his men insulted the judge; now, the witness. 


I was troubled by Saddam. Faced with this old man, I found it hard to react. I was intimidated by his legacy, yet I found him pathetic. A part of me saw him the way Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann, as a banal figure. Another part of me saw him as a delusional man like Slobodan Milosevic, unrepentant and defiant. Does Saddam know his evil? Do the others? Obsessed with ensuring a fair trial, the judge seemed too intimidated by hostile Western public opinion to impose order. He has a burdensome task. There is no precedent for this sort of thing in Iraq, and he has the eyes of the world watching him. He is also risking his life. And, yet, he disappointed: His impatience was directed more often at the witness than at the defendant. He failed to understand that these witnesses needed to speak, that Iraqis needed to listen, that this was part of a healing process. 

For his part, Saddam broke every rule, interrupted the witness, ignored the judge's feeble objections, and betrayed his racism and sectarianism. When Ahmad Mohammed recounted an incident about his mother, a woman from Falluja who was also imprisoned, he chose to praise the Sunnis of Falluja and Ramadi who helped him. Saddam interrupted and asked, "Who is 'they,' the Sunnis or the Tikritis?" Ahmad Mohammed replied, "I am honored by the Sunnis; they are my maternal uncles." It gave me so much hope that this man, whose life is threatened by his decision to come and testify--and after so much suffering--still found a way to express gratitude for the compassion of another community that, at present, is feeling marginalized and frustrated. With his humanity and dignity, he chose to rise above the anger and pain to be on record in support of a peaceful Iraq. 

Shaza's morale was jerked around. She wanted so hard to believe in this process, and there were moments when she did, but they were quickly dashed by the judge's leniency and Saddam's disregard. The same emotional whiplash was being experienced outside the gallery, in the streets across Iraq. So many are disappointed that, even after Saddam is deposed, he can still command and defy a court of law. Speaking of the court, a young woman told me, "Why are they doing this to us; why do they want to provoke us and play with our feelings?" Others, but many fewer, are pleased that the world can see Saddam and his cronies for what they really are. I keep remembering the American adviser's words of wisdom: "This is what democracy is about, and people will learn." I just wished they didn't have to learn this in such a painful way. For the vast majority, testifying in court will be their only form of justice.

Tamara Chalabi 's book, The Shi'is of Jabal 'Amil and the New Lebanon, is forthcoming in January.

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