The Times Dec 17,,172-934694,00.html

It's simple: the only good Saddam is a dead one

Simon Jenkins

The arrest of Saddam Hussein outside Tikrit on Sunday was a mistake. The only good Saddam is a dead one. After locating him the Americans should have used an Iraqi special forces unit to deal with him on the spot. An Iraqi, not an American, should have announced his death to the world. Instead the primacy of American domestic politics again got the better of sound strategy. George Bush wanted Saddam on the end of a rope but in his own good time.

I was standing with a colleague last month in a street market in Fallujah. We were debating with a group of traders that familiar Iraq theme, were things better now than under Saddam. The answer was always the same. Even here in the Sunni Triangle most Iraqis were glad Saddam had gone but they complained bitterly that things were worse. Their sons were unemployed, their homes violated and their women humiliated by patrolling soldiers. The Americans had brought them ruination and chaos.

Then a car drew up. A well-dressed man came over and pointed at me. "Saddam good," he said sternly in English, "Saddam one day return." He went back to his car and drove off. The traders fell quiet. "Baath," muttered a nervous interpreter.

I have no doubt that the same scene would be repeated today, except that I would risk being killed. Saddam still lives. He may have less potency in captivity, but he still lives. Yesterday American troops in Fallujah killed another four men for demonstrating in his support, creating another forty recruits to the resistance brigades. If American forces can kill Iraqis daily, with no judicial or disciplinary response, why are they fastidious about killing the one Iraqi whose mere existence inspires such anti-American hatred? If the coalition can drop bombs on "suspect" houses in Tikrit and wipe out a dozen children in Afghanistan for possibly sheltering Taleban, why go so gentle on Saddam?

The answer is that the desperate American boss in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, wanted to give Mr Bush the prize of his mighty foe not as a corpse but as a broken man stumbling behind the presidential victory chariot. Hence Saddam's humiliation on television. Hence the flagrant breach of Geneva Convention rules against the use of prisoners for propaganda, a breach vehemently protested against by Britain and America when Saddam did likewise. (Did Britain protest?)

There can be no argument that the arrest of Saddam is a huge step forward for Iraq. Coalition ineptitude may have taken eight months to achieve what should have taken a week. Intelligence may have dried up as coalition troops killed Iraqis virtually at random in the early days. Heavyhanded policing and, more serious, the tolerance of looting may have converted welcome into hostility. But Saddam is captured. One of the world's (many) tyrants is no longer at large.

I do not suscribe to the "it will make no difference" school. Many Iraqis continued to think that the Americans were shielding Saddam -- but then a majority of Americans still think Saddam was behind 9/11. Many certainly feared he might return at night to take vengeance on collaborators. Hence the five assassination attempts on the American-appointed mayor of Fallujah. Hence the pile of dead Iraqi judges, officials and policemen, mostly unreported in the press. Even in hiding Saddam was dreaded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis can now sleep more peacefully.

For a while. The Americans have declared that Saddam is to be tried in Iraq "by his own people", or at least by the Shias. A tribunal is to be set up under the aegis either of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council or of a majority-Shia provisional government that is still a pipedream. There is to be no international juridisdiction allowed. The trial is to be an Iraqi affair, to mark "closure on the past" and initiate a spirit of reconciliation.

This is superficially curious. The Americans did not similarly trust the Serbs to try Slobodan Milosevic, though they had voted him from power themselves, enjoyed a democratic government and already had him under house arrest. Milosevic's crimes were against his own people. Yet his own people were not allowed to try him. Americans kidnapped him and spirited him away to The Hague.

Saddam's crimes were declared to be of a different order. Both Mr Bush and Tony Blair declared him to have the whole world under imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction. The charge against him, they claimed, was thus international, the planning of global mass murder. Nor, unlike in Serbia, is there as yet any Iraqi state, democratic court system or plausible judiciary. In these circumstances an offshore tribunal under the United Nations or the Hague court might have seemed appropriate.

Suddenly Saddam's crimes are not, after all, international but internal. WMD are off the scanner. An international trial might have been embarrassing to Washington and London. It must presume innocence until guilt is proven. Saddam would have been free to speak in his own defence and would have been given him the right to subpoena and cross-examine witnesses. He might have summoned such distinguished former friends as Donald Rumsfeld and the CIA, men who turned a blind eye to his mass murders in the 1980s.

Saddam is no fool. He will have watched Milosevic exploit the platform of the Hague court to rebuild his reputation back home. Looking ever more like an aged ayatollah, he will present himself as a classic Arab victim of American imperialism, icon of extremist support across the Middle East. That will be his tactic whatever court tries him. And since half the purpose of the Iraqi tribunal is to get him executed, his defence will be that of an impending martyr. Is this really what the West wants? Heaven knows how many hostages will die against his death.

We are mad to think that putting this man on trial in Iraq -- or probably anywhere -- and hurling at him atrocity stories and abuse will win hearts and minds across the Middle East. Iraqis may speak of a thirst for justice but they understandably mean revenge. The Governing Council's Mowaffak al-Rubaie said on Monday: "We will get sovereignty on June 30, and I can tell you he could be executed on July 1." Even if it takes longer than that, the Shias and Kurds want Saddam dead.

I am opposed to the death penalty. But when America and Britain have killed thousands of Iraqis to save themselves from Saddam's supposed nuclear weapons, and thousands more to save those same Iraqis from Saddam, they can hardly preach the sanctity of Saddam's own person. Mr Blair claims the right to kill Iraqi civilians by using cluster munitions. How can he deny those civilians the right to kill Saddam? They know that men will be a menace as long as he languishes in an Iraqi jail. This is Baghdad, not Birmingham. They want him dead.

Mr Blair will go along with whatever America wants in Iraq. He is thus party to a show trial which is patently meant to avoid Saddam revealing embarrassing evidence of his past associations with the West and meant to deliver a swift execution. My year-old bet that this Government would find virtue in capital punishment is still on course.

America and Britain are living a fantasy over Iraq. They think they can snap their fingers and conjure a democracy and a judiciary into being overnight, so they can extract themselves from the Iraq imbroglio as soon as possible. But Iraq has no government and no law and order. Its policemen are murdered daily. A third of its fledgeling army has resigned because millions of dollars that should go on pay has been syphoned off to an American firm in surplus fuel profits.

There is no Iraqi constitution. As for the proposed tribunal, its sole authority so far is conferred by the Americans. Washington may be gloating over the prospect of a Saddam trial during the presidential election. But this trial will become like the occupation itself, war continued by other means. It will be a mess.

Iraq is still awash in blood. That blood would have been saved by the bucketful had a grenade been dropped into a certain foxhole at 8pm last Saturday. It would have been the quickest way to draw a line under Iraq's wretched past.