By Barry Lando
On June 24th in Baghdad the Special Iraqi Tribunal is due to hand down a verdict against several of Saddam Hussein’s officials charged with the slaughter of some 180,000 Kurds during the Al Anfal campaign in 1988.
The tribunal was established to prosecute those guilty of crimes against humanity during Saddam’s reign. Much as the Nuremberg Tribunal did with the Nazis, It was also supposedly meant to educate Iraqis and the world about Saddam and his barbarous regime and, at the same time, to bring a kind of closure to that nightmarish epoch. That at least was the fiction. The fact is that many of those complicit in Saddam’s crimes—some of the world’s most prominent leaders and businessmen, past and present—are missing from the dock. The full story of Saddam’s crimes will never be told.
Which is just as planned. From the start, the tribunal was established, financed and advised by the United States, the same power that once helped arm Saddam, encouraged him and stymied attempts of others to rein him in. Even most of the forensic investigations—the excavation of mass graves and the examination of mountains of documents—were carried out under the supervision of U.S. investigators. To make the rules of the game perfectly clear, one of the tribunal’s regulations, constantly overlooked by the media, is that only Iraqi citizens and residents can be charged with crimes before that court.
It is thus understandable that there has been no mention in the Baghdad courtroom of foreign complicity with Saddam’s crimes, such as the genocide of the Kurds. What is surprising, though, is how thoroughly the American media have played along with that charade.
Take the dramatic account by John Burns in The New York Times of an event this past January when prosecutors presented damning recorded evidence of Saddam and his officials coldbloodedly discussing the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds.
One of the voices was identified by prosecutors as that of Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who came to be known as Chemical Ali, scornfully dismissing concern that foreign powers might react to Saddam’s using chemical weapons against the Kurds.
“I will strike them [the Kurds] with chemical weapons and kill them all,” he was heard saying. “Who is going to say anything? The international community? A curse on the international community!”
Some reporter might have pointed out that Chemical Ali had good reason for such assurances: Beginning in 1983—five years before the attacks on the Kurds—the U.S. had willfully ignored the fact that Iraqis were using chemical weapons against the Iranians. But more than just ignore the fact, for years the administration continued to block all attempts by the United Nations and later the U.S. Congress to condemn Saddam or impose sanctions against Iraq. Indeed, American satellite intelligence was used by the Iraqis to target Iranian troops. The U.S. continued to furnish that intelligence in 1988, even after it realized Saddam was also using chemicals against his own Kurds.
American officials also refused to meet with Kurdish leaders who had evidence of the atrocities. Saddam, after all, was America’s de facto ally at the time in the war against Khomeini’s Iran. And even after the end of that war, until just weeks prior to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, George H.W. Bush and James Baker were still intent on wooing the tyrant with trade and credits. They saw Iraq as a major market for U.S. exports, not to mention as a prize for American oil companies. Both West and East, of course, had supplied Saddam with billions of dollars worth of weapons—of all kinds.
Indeed, while the Al Anfal trial was going on in Baghdad, Dutch prosecutors in The Hague presented a document from Saddam Hussein’s secret service praising a Dutch businessman, Frans van Anraat, for “rendering outstanding services” by selling Iraq “banned and rare chemicals” during the Iraq-Iran war. Van Anraat was lauded by the Iraqis for daring to “expose himself to extremely dangerous consequences” by selling the chemicals; he also did so “at a reasonable price compared to other offers.”
For instance, later this summer the tribunal is due to consider charges against almost a hundred of Saddam’s top officials for the massacre of tens of thousands of Shiites following the abortive uprising of 1991.
Another possible defendant, George Bush Senior, might have been questioned in relation to what was probably the worst of Saddam’s crimes, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites following the abortive uprising of 1991. The tribunal is due to consider those charges later this summer.
The Shiites were answering the repeated calls by the first President Bush for a popular revolt. Such a call was rebroadcast in Iraq by clandestine CIA radio stations and printed in millions of leaflets dropped by the U.S. Air Force across the country. Problem was, the Iraqis didn’t realize until it was too late that Bush and Baker, his pragmatic secretary of state, didn’t really mean it.
When it looked as if the insurgents might actually succeed, the American president turned his back. The White House and its allies wanted Saddam replaced not by a popular revolt which they couldn’t control but by a military leader more amenable to U.S. interests.
So, as the United States permitted Saddam’s attack helicopters to devastate the rebels, American troops just a few kilometers away from the slaughter were ordered to give no aid to those under attack. Instead they destroyed huge stocks of captured weapons rather than let them fall into rebel hands. According to some rebels in Iraq, American troops prevented them from marching on Baghdad.
Maybe I’ve missed something, but to date I’ve seen no such background given in U.S. media reports about the upcoming trial.
But what if, instead of the special tribunal—or along with it—Iraq had established a “truth commission,” such as South Africa did after the defeat of apartheid? Imagine also the unimaginable: that the Iraqi government had kept Saddam alive long enough to testify about past relations with the rest of the world.
How enlightening it would have been to hear the former tyrant recount his relief when he realized in 1991 that President Bush père was actually going to help him stay in power.
Saddam might have also explained to what degree the mixed messages from the senior Bush and the State Department were responsible for his concluding there would be no adverse reaction from Washington when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Or Saddam might have shed some light on the invasion of Iran. According to a memo written by Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, it was the Carter White House in 1980 which encouraged Iraq—via the Saudis—to invade Iran in the first place. Because Jimmy Carter has always denied that charge, it would have been interesting to hear Saddam expound on the issue.
Can you imagine the headlines generated by Saddam and his officials describing the dealings behind the billions of dollars of arms they imported from across the globe as leaders from East and West battled for a share of the bonanza. How the German governments—east and west—for instance, closed their eyes as scores of German industries also helped Saddam build his chemical arsenal. Saddam might have had a few pithy remarks about the British under Margaret Thatcher, who were equally eager to cash in on the Iraqi arms gusher—Thatcher’s son included.
It would have been instructive to hear Saddam detail his dealings with the French and Jacques Chirac, who sold the dictator a nuclear reactor in the 1970s, though it was clear Saddam was seeking weapons of mass destruction.
This search for historical truth could have gone back to the beginnings—to the charge that the CIA was involved in organizing the action that first brought Saddam notoriety: his participation in the botched 1959 assassination attempt against Iraqi President Abd al-Karim Qasim, who had proved too nationalistic and close to the Soviets for American and British Cold War tastes.
Or the Iraqis might have heard from Saddam and others about the CIA’s participation in the coup of 1963 that first brought the Baath Party to power, the CIA providing it with lists of hundreds of suspected communists and leftists to be picked up, tortured and disposed of. Saddam back then was one of the young Baath torturers.
But let’s return from such delusional speculation to the current status of the Special Iraqi Tribunal. Deep in the bunkered, barricaded confines of the Green Zone, the last redoubt of the American occupiers and Iraqi would-be rulers, prosecutors and defense attorneys argue over chilling evidence of Saddam’s genocidal killings while the judges and defendants sit and listen. They hear of entire families gassed, shot in the neck or the back and left for dead or buried alive.
It’s a Kafkaesque play within a play. For just outside the Green Zone, across Baghdad and throughout many other parts of Iraq, there is a reign of terror that in its randomness and horror far surpasses the dread of Saddam’s era.
It’s a play that—with Saddam no longer playing the starring role—has been performed to ever smaller audiences.
Certainly millions of Iraqis—particularly the Kurds—will be glued to their television sets to watch the verdict handed down against Chemical Ali and his confederates. But there was no print media present for most of the recent sessions. Foreign media were even less interested. Almost all the NGOs that once followed every turn of the proceedings to ensure that they bore at least passing resemblance to accepted legal practices are no longer there. At times, there are hardly any spectators at all.
These trials were supposed to provide dramatic justification for the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. But with the mayhem unleashed in the country today, no one buys that script any longer. Instead the tribunal has become an increasingly irrelevant sideshow, its procedures denounced by the same human rights groups that once denounced Saddam.
That being the case, it’s very unlikely the tribunal will run its full course. The U.S. government is said to be cutting back on financial, material and staff support.
There’s not much point in playing to an empty house.
For more on the trial of Saddam Hussein and the Kurds, click here to see one part of a documentary by Barry Lando and Michel Despratx. To see the full documentary, search for “Barry Lando” at YouTube.com. Lando is also the author of Web of Deceit.
(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
An Iraqi woman reacts while she watches a live broadcast of Saddam Hussein’s trial in 2005.