Iraq's Odious Debts

What to do with Iraq’s ‘most wanted’

Amir Taheri
National Post
May 8, 2003

As senior former Iraqi officials surrender or are captured one after another, the United States and its allies must decide what to do with them. The question is not academic. It could have long-range consequences not only in Iraq, but also in other countries with regimes similar to Saddam Hussein’s (though none as murderous).

According to reports, America has decided to offer some of the captured officials freedom from prosecution, and even material rewards, in exchange for information related to “more important matters.”

Such bargains are routinely used in North America in fighting crime syndicates. The smaller fry are offered lower sentences or immunity in exchange for helping send the bigger fry behind bars.

If our information is correct, the United States is offering such a deal to three captured Baathists: former Vice-Premier Mikhail Yuhanna (better known as Tariq Aziz); former spymaster Farouq Hejazi; and one of Saddam’s half-brothers, Barzan al-Takriti.

It would be foolish to embark on such a course. People such as Aziz, Hejazi and al-Takriti may or may not be the arch criminals some Iraqis take them to be. (In fact, they must be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a proper trial.) But to save them from prosecution in the context of secret deals would make a mockery of any system of justice that may be created in a new Iraq.

One option, of course, would be to let the alleged criminals loose after an interrogation. But would people such as Aziz, Hejazi and Barzan be able to live normal lives in the new Iraq? Would they not become targets for revenge attacks from the numerous victims of the regime they so callously served? Their only chance of staying alive may be as prisoners of the Americans.

Remarkably, there have been almost no revenge killings in Iraq so far. This contrasts with the estimated 150,000 Nazi collaborators who were summarily executed in France after liberation in 1944.

Another option for dealing with the Baathists is to organize trials modelled on the Nuremberg ones in post-Hitler Germany. Post-Saddam Iraq, however, is different.

Hitler won power in democratic elections and, at least initially, enjoyed the support of a substantial segment of the German intellectual, cultural and business elites. Throughout the Nazi era, a majority of Germans actively, often enthusiastically, worked, killed and died for Hitler. At the end of the war, the German nation as a whole bore collective responsibility for what Hitler had done.

Iraq’s experience under Saddam was quite different.

The Baath Party never won free elections in Iraq. It came to power with a military coup d’état in 1968. But even then, it did not enjoy broad support within the Iraqi army.

Over the years, a majority of Iraqis were terrorized into submission to the regime. But they never worked or fought for it with any conviction let alone enthusiasm.

During the eight-year war that Saddam had unleashed against Iran, more than 120,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the Iranians. Almost twice as many deserted inside Iraq.

In the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi army folded after 100 hours, indicating that it did not wish to fight for Saddam. In last month’s war, the regular Iraqi army did almost no fighting.

While Hitler had no German opposition, the widest possible range of political groups, parties and personalities opposed Saddam. Throughout the Nazi era, few non-Jewish Germans left the Reich to show their dislike of Hitler. Iraq under Saddam, however, witnessed the flight, or expulsion, of more than four million Iraqis from all backgrounds.

German society in the immediate post-Hitler era lacked the legitimacy to judge the Nazis. This is not the case with the post-Saddam Iraqi society. As the primary victim of Saddam’s regime, the people of Iraq have all the legitimacy they need to try their oppressors.

Iraqis, however, have a bitter memory of political trials organized by a new regime against the leaders of the previous one. (Televised show trials under Abdel-Karim Qassem, the first military dictator to seize power in Iraq in 1958, constitute a black chapter that most Iraqis wish to forget.)

Another option is for the Baathist chiefs to be tried by the newly created International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. This would be understandable, if only because Saddam’s regime has also been charged with international crimes including his invasions of Iran and Kuwait and his use of chemical weapons in violation of existing conventions.

The Bush administration, however, has not recognized the ICC. It is also concerned that diplomatic treachery by governments that still regret Saddam’s demise might prevent the new court from doing a proper job of prosecuting the Saddamites.

The option of dumping the Baathist chiefs in Guantanamo Bay can be excluded at the outset. Such a judicial purgatory would take the Baathist gangsters out of the world limelight and, in time, allow their friends in the anti-American movement in the West to transform them into victims of “imperialism.”

So what is the best course?

Instead of publishing lists of names and issuing playing cards of “wanted men,” the United States must fix the principles under which Baathist officials will be dealt with. Nor should America, as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has done, announce an arbitrary number for Baathist officials that need to be brought to justice.

The 55 of the playing-card pack are not all in the same category. Some are liable to charges of murder, in some cases mass murder. Others were spineless bureaucrats of the kind that is always ready to serve any master. Still others were vulgar gangsters on the gravy train. The principles to be spelled out are simple.

Some Baathist chiefs can be charged with crimes against humanity for their role in the oppression of the Iraqi people and the invasions of Iran and Kuwait. A few could face charges of genocide, in connection with the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. An international tribunal, patterned on that set up to try the former Yugoslavia’s leaders, could try such individuals. The tribunal could sit somewhere in the region, for example, Cyprus.

Some former officials, like Saddam’s eldest son Uday, can be charged with individual acts of murder in addition to corruption. They can be tried in ordinary Iraqi criminal courts.

A majority of Baathist officials, at middle and lower levels, may be open to lesser charges of corruption and brutality. They should be given a chance to redeem themselves.

New Iraq needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission patterned on that of South Africa. The commission would invite all Baathists to confess their crimes, accept punishment and move on, allowing the nation to turn a painful page.

It would take years, if not decades, before Iraq’s psychological wounds are healed. The Nazis ruled Germany for fewer than 13 years, and yet it took many Germans half a century to recover from the experience.

The Baathists ruled Iraq for twice that long — a nightmare that might be harder to forget. Germany cured itself by facing the truth. Iraq should do the same.

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