SADDAM Hussein's trial could prove to be a turning point for Iraq and the Middle East. Regardless of the competence of the court trying him, and of whether justice will indeed be seen to be done, Arabs have never been treated to the spectacle of seeing one of their mighty rulers brought to justice. In their heart of hearts, even Saddam's supporters would wish to extend this treatment to other Arab dictators, although they would prefer it to be free of foreign domination.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is implicated, directly or indirectly, in many heinous crimes: the massacre of Dujail in 1982; the massacre of Kurds using chemical weapons in 1987 and 1988; the attacks against the Marsh Arabs in the 1980s and 1990s; the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and many more unspeakable atrocities. The memory of these vile acts is still fresh in many minds and their scars run deep.
Nobody in his right mind would, therefore, want to absolve Saddam of these crimes, especially those who were at the receiving end of his vicious style of summary justice.
But the man who appeared in the courtroom last Wednesday looked a shadow of his former self, save for his ability to defy his interrogators - and, in the process, to give a boost to his followers and to those who see him as a symbol of defiance against the occupation. In the eyes of his supporters, Saddam's court performance may even absolve him of the ignominy of his surrender to his captors in December 2003. But it may also prove to be the final straw that will break the back of Iraq's fragile unity and hasten the slide towards civil war in the country.
The truth is that, during this first round, Saddam had the better of the judges who were trying him. He eyeballed them, belittled them and painted them as lackeys of the foreign powers that rule over Iraq. Using some of the rhetorical flourishes that characterized his discourse in years past, he refused to accept the court's authority and insisted he was still the only "legitimate" president of Iraq.
And, using a formula laced with religious resonance and symbolized by the copy of the Koran he carried with him, he enunciated the Islamic legal principle that "falsehood begets falsehood", taunting the five judges who appeared to be no match for him. And yet this week Saddam looked a pathetic man, surrounded by former henchmen who, even in captivity, appeared to be frightened of him.
Saddam's trial will be compulsive viewing when it restarts in earnest next month. In the drama of the court, his lawyers will want to defend him by attributing guilt to America, Britain and other Western countries, which actively supported him in the war with Iran and knowingly turned a blind eye when he and his henchmen flagrantly committed some of the most evil crimes Iraq has known. Western guilt by association will be the name of the game.
Saddam's trial will also be a trial of Western duplicity and the politics of moral corruption closer to home. By exposing Western hypocrisy, Saddam will add the status of witness and prosecutor to his role as defendant and former tyrant. The battle over guilt will combine the legal, the political and the moral. And Saddam will not be the only party to be found guilty.
Prof Yasir Suleiman is director of the Institute for the Study of the Arab World and Islam, University of Edinburgh
© 2005 newsquest (sunday herald) limited