Reckoning in Iraq
In a free Iraq, Saddam will face trial—and try to turn the tables on his captors.

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Michael Hirsh

Oct. 24, 2005 issue - He spends much of his time reading legal books given to him by the Red Cross, including one on the Geneva Conventions. He is said to be as defiant as ever—and ready for his close-up. In fact, Saddam Hussein "still considers himself the president," says Khamis Obaidi, a recent member of the former Iraqi dictator's legal team. U.S. officials who once were exhilarated by Saddam's capture now fear that when he goes on trial this week for crimes against humanity, he will try to emulate the grandstanding of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serb tyrant. "Saddam monitored Milosevic's performance at The Hague and was very impressed with it," says former U.S. occupation spokesman Dan Senor, who worries that the trial will "inflame" Sunni insurgents in the short run. Like Milosevic, Saddam plans to argue that his captors have no right to try him at all. "He thinks that anything being done under occupation is illegitimate," says Obaidi.

Very few Iraqis want Saddam back in charge at the Republican Palace. Judging from polls, most loathe him and would like to see him executed. Nonetheless, Saddam will appear before the Iraqi Special Tribunal—not far from where he once ruled—at a time when many Iraqis, especially his fellow Sunnis, are questioning the legitimacy of the government bequeathed to them by the U.S. occupation. After two and a half years of terror and bloodshed, most Iraqis also crave stronger leadership. So while the country's new leaders try Saddam, he will seek to turn the tables and put them on trial. "As much as I hated Saddam when he was in power, I sympathize with him now," says Khaled Saad, a 45-year-old former Iraqi officer in Baghdad. "None of the Iraqi politicians in power now are better than him." In Sunni strongholds like Fallujah, there are some who still openly revere Saddam. "Iraq is trying Saddam for defeating the enemies of Iraq—is that right?" shouted Abu Amad, a brown-faced elderly man in tribal robes who lost a son in the Iran-Iraq war.

Even supporters of Saddam's prosecution say the timing is a bit awkward, given the tenuous state of Iraqi democracy. Last Saturday, Iraqis conducted a mostly peaceful vote on a new Iraqi constitution. U.S. soldiers providing security noted that the event had a holiday atmosphere reminiscent of the first nationwide vote last January. "It was a good day," says Lt. Col. John Norris, a commander with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which was responsible for Mosul's security. But most Sunnis were out to vote no, and some U.S. officials argue the more significant vote will come Dec. 15 when Iraqis decide on a permanent government. Although Bush administration officials will not say so publicly, they believe it is critical that the Iraqis install a better leader than Ibrahim Jaafari, the Shiite prime minister who is widely seen as weak and narrowly focused on ethnic squabbles for power.

Jaafari, a 58-year-old physician who heads the Iranian-backed Dawa Party, has been in office just seven months. But in personal terms he has come across almost as an anti-Saddam—a mild-mannered and well-meaning Iraqi who is utterly without charisma. Jaafari speaks in an undertone and mumbles during speeches; even some translators have trouble understanding him. In contrast to the man who preceded him, interim prime minister Ayad Allawi—who regularly visited bombing sites—Jaafari doesn't venture far out of the Green Zone. "People here complain all the time that Jaafari doesn't care about them, that the government is all an Iranian conspiracy," says John Kael Weston, a State Department diplomat in Fallujah, where Allawi allocated $200 million in rebuilding funds after the U.S. siege in 2004.

Jaafari, in truth, can hardly be blamed for most of Iraq's ills. But Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the National Assembly, points out that Jaafari's government hasn't made much progress in stabilizing the country or delivering basic services like electricity and water. "The performance of the cabinet and Jaafari specifically hasn't been at the expected levels," says Othman. A reporter recently asked Allawi—who is trying to pull together a governing coalition for the December vote—what he would have done that Jaafari hasn't. Allawi chuckled and answered, "Do you want me to go into the programs? It will take a week."