ALMOST BY definition, no trial of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen will satisfy everyone. Certainly none of the precedents, from the Nuremberg war crimes trials to the International Criminal Tribunal now hearing testimony about events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, are ideal models. There is no "correct" formula for the Iraqi special tribunal to follow, no rules that can ensure that everyone concerned -- victims, Iraqi citizens, Iraqi politicians -- approves the result. Trials of former war criminals and ex-dictators must balance the demands of politics against the demands of justice, the need for promptness against the need for deeper reflection. In the Iraqi circumstances, there are important political reasons to move quickly: A fair rendition of Saddam Hussein's crimes might undercut the insurgency. There are also significant reasons to move slowly: It's essential for Iraq's new government, as well as the tribunal itself, to conduct the trial carefully and well. Such a trial can help the Iraqi people confront and understand the tragedy of the past decades.
Although some are saying otherwise this week, the decision to give ultimate control over the trial to Iraqis, as opposed to international judges or Americans, was right: Slobodan Milosevic's disastrous trial in The Hague has been far too easily dismissed in Serbia as "foreigners' justice" and has actually helped rehabilitate the Serbian dictator. Nevertheless, the U.S. and international roles in this process are, if anything, only just beginning. The Justice Department says it has sent 50 people to Baghdad to cooperate with the Iraqis. The head of the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office, Greg Kehoe, has had contact with the U.S. intelligence officials who control most of the Baathist archives, now stored in Qatar. But there are reports that security concerns and lack of funding have stymied investigations at the moment when they should be expanded: The forensic examination of the hundreds of people buried in mass graves is an enormous task in itself and well beyond the capacity of the few Iraqis and foreigners in the country who are trained for such work.
The Justice Department's initial contribution should also be enlarged to include as much international input as possible. One of the other inherent dangers of this trial is that its defendants will challenge the legitimacy of the proceedings, as did Mr. Milosevic. Iraqis would benefit from allowing some international lawyers to participate, if not as judges or prosecutors then as investigators, both to increase the numbers and experience of their own team and to make clear that the court has international recognition.
Many in Washington will be tempted to wash their hands of this trial now that it is officially under Iraqi control. To do so would be dangerous, for this is no "slam-dunk" case. Following the practice of other dictators, Saddam Hussein probably left no paper trail connecting him to his regime's blatant crimes. During his arraignment he immediately denounced the court: "Everyone knows this is theater by Bush the criminal." If that is any indication of what is to come, this could be a difficult trial for judges and prosecutors with little experience of international law, or even of proper trials, to control. It is critical for the success of the new Iraqi government that the trial receive the funding and attention it deserves from the U.S. government and others in the international legal community.