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Morality in Iraq, Then and Now

Saddam Hussein in the dock at his trial last week.
Saddam Hussein in the dock at his trial last week. (By Daniel Berehulak -- Associated Press)

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Change is news, and the important news from the second trial of Saddam Hussein is this: The U.S. government is helping expose the ex-dictator's genocidal assault on Kurdish tribesmen instead of helping hide it.

Welcome the change. But do not rush past the original malfeasance: U.S. officials were directly involved two decades ago in covering up and minimizing the horrifying details that were finally spread on the legal record in a Baghdad courtroom last week. In a long history of U.S. involvement in Iraq stained by official mistakes, betrayals and misunderstandings, the initial coverup of Hussein's Anfal campaign is among its darkest moments.

I visited Baghdad in May 1987, a month after Iraqi troops began using poison gas and burning Kurdish villages in a systematic program of ethnic slaughter and cleansing. The U.S. Embassy quickly learned of the devastation through a trip to northern Iraq by an assistant military attache. But he denied to me what I had learned elsewhere: that he had reported to Washington the beginning of the operation code-named Anfal. His report was promptly stamped secret.

At the opening last week of Hussein's second war crimes trial, Kurdish witnesses testified in heartbreaking detail on how Anfal ("spoils of war") then continued for more than a year. "I had one son," a woman testified, according to news reports of her testimony about the gas attacks. "They Anfalized him."

The onslaught resulted in the destruction of 2,000 villages, the deaths of at least 50,000 Kurds and the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of others. The Reagan-Bush administration remained silent as it helped the Iraqis fight the Iranians; Washington even made sure Iraq was invited to a prestigious international conference on chemical weapons in 1988.

This history lives on and figures prominently in today's tragedy of Iraq, even as the current mayhem in the streets of Baghdad obscures its importance. The important national moral obligation to Iraqis that such American actions have created must not be shoved aside in the debates over strategy and politics that proliferate as U.S. midterm elections approach.

Since 1972 American officials have alternately encouraged Iraq's Kurds and Shiites to rise up in rebellion -- or, since the 2003 invasion, to claim their political rights through democratic majority rule and regional autonomy -- and then reversed course by conferring U.S. loyalty on the long-dominant Sunni minority at crucial moments. They have done so largely out of fear of the unknowns that U.S. policy was helping create.

Three decades of American wavering increase Kurdish determination to avoid central control from Baghdad and encourage the Shiites to reach for a southern regional government with full autonomy. It is probably beyond U.S. power to prevent a de facto partition of Iraq now by empowering a government of questionable national unity. And it may not be in U.S. interests to try.

Instead, in the Iraqi endgame, Washington has three overriding obligations: It must leave behind a central government that does not visit death and destruction on its own citizens as a matter of policy or whim. It must oppose Turkish intervention in Kurdistan. And American officials must not let their fears of Iran outweigh the legitimate political rights of Iraq's Shiite majority. These steps would help settle moral accounts that stretch back beyond the invasion ordered by President Bush and forward beyond his time in office.

The trials of Saddam Hussein, although they are much criticized by international legal experts on technical grounds, help underline this history and this responsibility. To have held them outside Iraq before non-Iraqi judges, as some suggested, would have robbed Iraqis of a part of their identity and a chance for emotional relief. It would also have obscured the unspoken subtext of the neglect by the outside world of these atrocities.

It is no accident that the first trial of Hussein, now suspended for the issuance of a final judgment, involved mass executions in a Shiite village, or that the second one has become a platform for Kurdish grievances that the world was willing to ignore or minimize for far too long.

It is also important to recognize that without the U.S. invasion, these trials would never have occurred. But that in turn underscores a bitter reality that the Bush administration must now confront:

Military intervention can be justified when it changes things for the better. It does not have to be perfect. But conducting a military occupation that has lost the ability to change the situation for the better for those being occupied is unwise and ultimately untenable. It is also immoral. U.S. involvement in Iraq is again perilously close to being just that.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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