GIVEN THAT it is taking place in a country at war, and that it is being run by the Iraqis he once terrorized, the trial of Saddam Hussein, which opened Wednesday in Baghdad, was never going to be easy. Predictably, Iraqi politicians have tried to manipulate the trial, with some wanting it to become part of an ethnic campaign against the Sunni Arabs who in some cases supported Saddam Hussein, and others wanting to get it over with as soon as possible, precisely to avoid antagonizing those same Sunni Arabs. Security concerns have marred the trial, too. Most of the judges will not appear on the televised images from the trial, for fear of reprisals. Witnesses and some judges say they are terrified even to be in the same room as the dictator who brutally murdered so many of their countrymen.
Yet there is no use pretending that holding this trial in Geneva or The Hague would make it any less "political" -- all war crimes trials are political -- and it is pointless to hold it to a standard of international justice that does not, in fact, exist: To date, the most successful war crimes trials are still those that have been the most spontaneous and the most indigenous. There are good reasons for the trial to be conducted in Iraq, by Iraqis. Simply having the former dictator appear on television in an Iraqi courtroom helps establish the sovereignty of the new government. Simply having the proceedings take place in Arabic makes them more accessible to Iraqis. On Wednesday, the former dictator blustered about the court's illegitimacy, just as Hermann Goering did at Nuremberg. As time goes on, as the prosecutors produce evidence of mass murder and torture, that bluster will wear thin. Already, some Iraqis have remarked on the differences between this trial -- which has adjourned in part to give the defense time to review the evidence -- and the abrupt justice of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The trial could still go wrong if the Iraqi investigating judges are incompetent or too afraid to make their case. Why the U.S. military, which has so much to gain from the success of this trial, has not given them full access to all its captured Baath Party documents is impossible to understand: Failing to do so only adds to the problems the tribunal has had in establishing its legitimacy and compiling documentary evidence. The tribunal's American advisers should reverse that policy and should also help the court overcome the technical glitches that marred broadcast transmission of the hearings. Why the international legal community has been so reluctant to aid the Iraqi tribunal is also hard to explain: The court's statute allows international participation, but few, whether from the United Nations or human rights groups, have wanted to help. They should put aside their qualms, whether about the original invasion or about the Iraqi insistence on retaining the death penalty. Outside input would help the tribunal remain as transparent, and as accessible to the Iraqi and international media, as possible.
At the deepest level, the value of this trial lies in its ability to help convey to Iraq and the world the true story of the Baathist dictatorship. Done right, it could help reconcile Iraqi ethnic groups, provide greater legitimacy to the elected government and, ultimately, stabilize the country. The U.S. military, and everyone else concerned for Iraq's future, has a huge interest in seeing the trial go well.