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Iraq's Courtroom Drama

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The U.S.-sponsored Iraqi government hasn't managed to learn much about fighting an insurgency, preventing corruption by legislators and other power brokers, or interrogating suspects without resorting to torture. But it's hard to blame the Iraqis, since the Bush administration obviously doesn't grasp these concepts, either. You can't teach what you don't understand.

But there's one body of American know-how we've successfully managed to impart: how to stage a Trial of the Century.

The trial of Saddam Hussein is just beginning, and already it has become an utterly compelling made-for-TV spectacle. The Iraqis, in this case, have proved to be precocious students; clearly they understand all the conventions we established over the years in our many television-era Trials of the Century -- Patricia Hearst, Rodney King's cops, Michael Jackson and, of course, the O.J. Simpson trial, our masterpiece, our Mona Lisa of jurisprudence run amok. And the Iraqis are showing creativity in assembling those elements in new and different ways.

The first necessity is sufficient worldwide interest to attract a media horde, and Hussein's trial certainly qualifies on this score. You also need a celebrity defense lawyer, an F. Lee Bailey or a Johnnie Cochran, and for a while it looked as if the Hussein trial was lacking on this score. But then Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general, parachuted in to give the defense table some international star power.

So a man who was once the highest-ranking legal official in the United States is defending a dictator whom the United States waged a major war to depose. And it turns out that Clark isn't there just to observe or provide window dressing. He's there to perform. On Monday he insisted on addressing the court, ignored the judge's instruction to keep to one narrow topic, and then led a brief walkout of the whole defense team -- all this without being able to speak a word of Arabic.

A Trial of the Century needs compelling testimony, and after the defense team consented to return, the first prosecution witness to face the monstrous tyrant told a riveting story. Ahmad Hassan Mohammed sobbed as he described how Hussein's agents arrested, brutalized and executed seven of his brothers in an orgy of indiscriminate reprisal after someone in their village tried to assassinate the dictator. One brother was tortured with electric shocks as his father was forced to watch, Mohammed said.

A proper Trial of the Century requires a measure of chaos, and this one has plenty. For some reason, Hussein and his co-defendants are being given license to heckle the proceedings. "You are a dog," Hussein's half-brother was heard to hiss at someone in the gallery. Also necessary is a beleaguered judge struggling to keep the proceedings from devolving into anarchy. With his world-weary eyes and unflappable demeanor, Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin could have been sent by Central Casting.

Most of all, a Trial of the Century needs a fascinating monster at its core. Hussein is supposed to be the defendant, but so far he has been on the attack. "Do not interrupt me, son," he snapped at the witness Mohammed. At another point, he was bold enough to threaten the judge: "When the revolution of the heroic Iraq arrives, you will be held accountable."

Hussein has maintained since his capture by U.S. forces that he is still the legitimate president of Iraq. That is manifestly untrue -- even if he continues to play the role of national patriarch, calling the judge his "brother" and the witnesses his "sons." At the end of each court session, he goes home not to a palace but to a prison cell. But by continuing to act like a head of state, he has managed to dominate the courtroom. When he was in power he was bloodthirsty and brutal beyond imagining, and he exercised total control. Now, even as he sits in the dock, he still demands and receives a certain deference.

"This game must not continue. If you want Saddam Hussein's neck, you can have it," he said to the courtroom yesterday, in one of his outbursts. "I am not afraid of execution. . . . I'm not doing [this] for myself, I'm doing it for Iraq. I'm not defending myself. But I am defending you."

And, finally, a real Trial of the Century requires edge-of-your-seat suspense. In Hussein's case there's not much doubt about the verdict. He's going down.

The only suspense is how long it will take for the judge, the prosecutors, the courtroom galleries and millions of Iraqis watching on television to realize that Hussein is now in their power, rather than the other way around.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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