Saddam Hussein’s murder-and-torture trial has been a rocky and winding road so far. The trial has already resulted in death threats, murdered witnesses, and fleeing lawyers. The open-and-shut trial some Americans envisioned has not materialized, dispelling the illusion that a trial would promptly solve the Saddam problem.
Last February I had the chance to speak with a visiting Iraqi student who predicted this very mess. We spoke at Harvard National Model United Nations. Qusay Hussein, a graduate student in Iraq who shares no familial relation to Saddam Hussein, first expressed to me his honest perception of the U.S. involvement in Iraq. When we came to the topic of Saddam, his account went like this: Saddam always wanted to be feared, as fear was an effective instrument of maintaining power; he sought WMDs and was going to get them at any cost; he enjoyed giving others the impression that he had such weapons so he could preserve and augment a powerful global reputation.
Qusay emphasized to me that he, and the majority of Iraqis, were happy to see Saddam out of power and that the Iraqis want the U.S. to stabilize the nation before leaving. But then he gravely warned that as long as Saddam lives, he will be a fatal threat to the nation. The United States is well intentioned in offering Saddam a fair trial, he said, but as long as the U.S. lets him open his mouth, it is risking disaster.
“What did this mean?” I asked him. Saddam’s exceptional oratorical skills significantly bolstered his rise to power, Qusay explained, and a televised trial will give him the exact opportunity he needs to galvanize the people again. In the past, he has shown a masterful ability to rile the people up, not through intelligent talk per se, but through motivational rhetoric. He may not convince them all, said Qusay, but if he can convince enough people to form a band of fellow scaremongers, he will have succeeded.
It seems my Iraqi friend was right. Saddam has already convinced some followers to terrorize those involved in the trial. And in his parrying with the judge in the trial he has displayed his signature wiles: “They are in our country. You are an Iraqi, you are sovereign and they are foreigners, invaders, and occupiers.”
In our conversation Qusay also suggested that the U.S.’s fair treatment of prisoners — far gentler than Middle Eastern standards — has slowed its campaign to rip up terrorist threats in Iraq. He has a point. After all, just two weeks ago we learned a man by the name of Safaa Mohammed Ali, one of the suicide bombers who blasted the Amman hotels in Jordan, was once detained by U.S. forces in Iraq, but soon released due to a lack of “compelling evidence” that would fairly justify further detainment.