Put Iraq's Story on The Stand

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 23, 2005

Saddam Hussein's lawyers have announced their intention to make past U.S. complicity with the Iraqi dictator an essential part of the defense in his Baghdad trial. Let's hope they keep their poisonous word.

The pledge to revisit the past came as Hussein's trial opened, and it fed into a flurry of other helpful developments in Iraq last week after a draining summer and early autumn. The White House seems to have noticed that the war's critics are in the ascendancy.

"We needed to go back on the offense and offer clear leadership on Iraq," one official said in explaining new emphases laid out in testimony by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Staying the course" is no longer seen as sufficient, as strategy or as slogan.

The most important aspects of Rice's testimony may be its timing and the fact that she has now put her stamp on Iraq policy. Doubts had grown in recent months over who in Washington -- if anyone -- was running the shop. For better or worse, Iraq is now her project in a way it never was before.

Rice unveiled to skeptical senators a revised political-military plan to "clear, hold and build" in disputed areas. She indicated that she would dispatch many more U.S. diplomats, aid workers and other civilians out of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone to be embedded with U.S.-Iraqi military recon-

struction teams in the countryside. And she plans to visit Iraq's Arab neighbors in the next month to press them to engage politically and financially with the permanent Iraqi government to be formed after the December elections.

This suggests that Rice and her advisers share some of the sense

of urgency, if not the underlying analysis, that is voiced by strong war critics such as Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who says the administration has

"a window, at most, of six months" to convince the American public "that

it has the ability to influence the outcome in Iraq." Otherwise, sentiment for withdrawal will become irresistible.

That estimate has a ring of political truth. A critical period opened with the approval of Iraq's constitution a week ago. Voters went to the polls for the second time this year in a largely peaceful and orderly election -- a psychological and political watershed in the Arab Middle East.

Hussein's lawyers -- who asked for and received a postponement until Nov. 28 after a formal opening Wednesday -- expect to use the past to demoralize U.S. opinion further. They will play a variant of the "shame game" that is a common tactic in Arab politics and culture to get opponents to yield.

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