Verdict for Saddam Hussein
Like the new political order around it, the trial was messy, costly and divisive -- but the judgment is just.

Monday, November 6, 2006

IT'S BEEN nearly three years since U.S. troops pulled Saddam Hussein from his spider hole, so the justice that came yesterday, in the form of a death sentence from an Iraqi tribunal for crimes against humanity, was not particularly swift. Nor was his nine-month-long trial the model of fairness that the Bush administration and many Iraqis had hoped for: Three defense lawyers were murdered, a judge was pressured into resigning and many of the 39 courtroom sessions were chaotic.

There nevertheless can be little doubt that justice was delivered in the trial of a tyrant who never hesitated when ordering the summary murder of tens of thousands of Iraqis. The prosecution, planned as the first of several, focused on one small example of that record: Saddam Hussein's complicity in the torture and killing of at least 148 people in a single town, Dujail, after an assassination attempt against him in 1982. During the course of the heavily publicized hearings, Iraqis heard their former dictator confess to ordering the arrest of the innocent civilians, and they saw the death warrants he signed. They heard the testimony of townspeople whose lives were destroyed by this savagery and whose pain echoed that of millions of Iraqis who endured one of the bloodiest tyrannies in the modern history of the Middle East.

Tragically, the remediation that ought to come from the verdict has been shaded not only by the tumult of the trial but by the escalation of lawless violence around Iraq. Yesterday Shiites in Baghdad justifiably celebrated the sentencing of a man who carried out indiscriminate massacres against their sect. But Shiite militias, some of them embedded in government security forces, now abduct, torture and slaughter dozens of Sunnis a day. Sunnis in Iraq and in neighboring Arab countries are more likely to see the verdict as an act of vengeance by the Shiite-led government -- or a preelection gambit by the Bush administration -- than as a legitimate judgment.

In the short term, Saddam Hussein's conviction and eventual execution may worsen Iraq's civil conflict. His trials nevertheless may come to be seen as milestones in the slow and painful attempt to construct a more civilized Iraq from the poisonous wreckage of his regime. Like the rest of that enterprise, the trial was tumultuous, deeply flawed and often painful to watch; and some of the brave Iraqis who committed themselves to making it work lost their lives. The result was imperfect, to be sure, but also well-founded.

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