A trying spectacle

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S TRIAL IS proceeding much like the invasion of Iraq: poorly planned, messier than expected, deadly to participants and far from over. Hussein has clearly learned from former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose courtroom antics have helped turn his trial on similar charges of crimes against humanity into a seemingly interminable circus. But Hussein's theatrics are far more dangerous; his continual exhortations to his Sunni Arab followers help prop up Iraq's insurgency.

Hussein was quiet in court Tuesday as his trial resumed, but the good behavior is unlikely to last. His most recent tactic was to pretend to be on a hunger strike; his lawyer later said Hussein ended it for health reasons, apparently under the impression that hunger strikes are supposed to be good for one's health. Hussein's former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, who enjoys coming to court in his pajamas, was in his usual form, shouting his defiance at judges. This comes after two defense attorneys have been killed, three new judges have been named to head the proceedings, and the original defense lawyers boycotted the trial, forcing the judge to appoint new ones, whom Hussein immediately rejected. The original lawyers returned to court Tuesday, although the two lead counsels walked out when their request to remove the chief judge was rejected.

The trial's chaotic nature has led to questions about its legitimacy (which is, of course, Hussein's aim). Many critics suggest that it should never have been held in Baghdad with Iraqi judges but instead should have been conducted by a body such as the International Criminal Court. Anyone who thinks an international court is harder to manipulate by a crafty defendant such as Hussein need look no further than the Milosevic trial, now into its fifth year.

It would have been better to hold Hussein's trial in Iraq with some respected international jurists on the panel. That would have avoided this trial's most troubling problem: The new lead judge, Raouf Rasheed Abdel Rahman, is a Kurd from Halabja, where Hussein is suspected of ordering a poison gas attack that slaughtered thousands. That atrocity is unrelated to the trial -- it focuses on the torture and execution of nearly 150 people in Dujayl as alleged retaliation for a 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein -- but Rahman's apparent conflict of interest raises doubts about the fairness of the proceedings. Unfortunately, international help was ruled out by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan because under Iraqi law, the defendants could face capital punishment.

Troubling as Rahman's background is, he's doing a better job than his predecessors of keeping the proceedings under control. With expectations for both Hussein's trial and Iraq's reconstruction spiraling ever downward, that may be the best anyone can ask.

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