Why are we asking this now?
Tariq Aziz, the most articulate spokesman for Saddam Hussein's regime, went on trial in Baghdad yesterday. The 72-year-old is accused of being responsible for the execution in 1992 of 42 merchants, who allegedly raised food prices for no reason at a time when Iraq was under international sanctions. Aziz is on trial with eight others, including Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, and Ali Hassan al-Majid – also known as "Chemical Ali". Al-Majid is already on death row, having been convicted last year of leading a campaign in which tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds were massacred in the late 1980s. He is too ill to attend court because he has high blood pressure and diabetes.
Aziz, who was not a key decision-maker in Saddam's regime, is accused of signing the execution orders as a member of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council – but he would have had no choice but to do so. It is unlikely he would have been directly responsible for ordering the executions. Indeed, it was one of the few mass killings for which Saddam was mildly apologetic. His victims were later referred to as "martyrs of the moment of rage".
What is the significance of these trials?
They are important because they underline the determination of the Shia-Kurdish government to bring to justice the Baathist leaders who persecuted them for so long. Iraq's new rulers see all of Saddam's ruling Baathist elite as being guilty of hideous crimes. But the trials also emphasise the depth of the divisions between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq.
In Saddam's birthplace, Awaja, schoolgirls threw flowers on his grave and sang songs in praise of him this week. But for all of the Kurds, and most of the Shias, Saddam and his lieutenants were the equivalent of Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler. Many Sunnis see these trials, particularly of those leaders not directly involved in security, as a sign that none of their community has a place in the new Iraq.
What is left of Saddam's regime?
The Baathist regime which held power from 1968 to 2003 was destroyed by the US-led invasion of 2003. In the final war, even its most elite military detachments did not fight and went home. It was very much a family government, whose inner core consisted of Saddam (executed at the end of 2006) and his sons Uday and Qusay, who were trapped in a house in Mosul in 2003 and killed in a gun battle. Other top members of Saddam's government were his three half-brothers and more distant cousins such as Ali Hassan al-Majid. The important survivors of the regime who still matter did not feature in the pack of "most wanted" cards issued to US troops (though the former vice-president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is still on the run) but younger men. These are the majors and colonels from Saddam's security services who have been at the heart of the resistance to the occupation.
What was the long-term outcome of Saddam's trial and execution?
The gruesome execution of Saddam and the jeers of his executioners in December 2006 excited sympathy among the Iraqi Sunnis and abroad. Iraqis have become so used to appalling violence that they were probably less shocked by the hanging than many foreigners. They also spend most of their time worrying about the violence that threatens them and their families and not that done to the old dictator.
Many Iraqis say their lives were safer under Saddam but this does not mean they want him back. They know he ruined their country. The Americans orchestrated Saddam's trial, although they wanted it to have an Iraqi face. These days, the US has less enthusiasm for trying and executing former Iraqi leaders because its policy is to conciliate the Sunnis, including former insurgents who have denounced violence and allied themselves with the Americans.
Will Tariq Aziz be given a fair trial?
Iraq is still engulfed in war and no trial will be regarded as fair by all of the population. Evidence is difficult to collect. Saddam seldom gave a direct order for mass killings, although it is known that atrocities such as the murders of 150,000 Shias after the uprising of 1991, would not have taken place without his instructions.
There was more evidence against Chemical Ali, who gassed 180,000 Kurds in 1988-89, because government archives were captured during the Kurdish uprising of 1991. Those giving evidence know that they and their families might be killed. The trials are not fair but then neither was Nuremburg.
Should the trials be stopped because they inflame hatreds?
No. The problem for the US and Iraqi governments is that instead of pursuing the 5,000 leading henchmen of Saddam's regime in 2003, they targeted the whole Sunni community of six million people. The army and security services were dissolved and former officers reduced to selling their furniture in order to feed their families. Not surprisingly, they joined the resistance.
The Americans are now pressing the Iraqi government to re-employ many of these former Baathists but it is doubtful this will happen. Here, the trials are more a symptom than a cause. Most former Baathist officers do not fear a formal trial as much as being shot dead on their doorsteps – as has happened to thousands of them. But there are very real criminals who killed and tortured at Saddam's command who should be brought to justice.
How will history judge Saddam and his lieutenants?
Saddam Hussein was a monster. He seized power in a country with enormous oil reserves, a well-educated population and an efficient administration – and then ruined it. There was no need for him to crush any sign of dissent as if it was an attempted coup. His regime prided itself on its violence. It recorded its most vicious crimes on video tape.
Saddam was in some ways like Stalin, but there was also an element of Inspector Clouseau about him: he launched disastrous wars and described humiliating defeats as victories. But many Iraqis find it difficult to believe the revulsion expressed by the British and US governments at Saddam's crimes against humanity following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when the West had said so little about them previously. For instance, George Bush laments Saddam's use of poison gas at Halabja, which killed 5,000 civilian Kurds in 1988. But the US and Britain said so little to condemn Iraq's use of poison gas against Iranian soldiers and civilians during the Iran-Iraq war that, in practice, they were complicit in its use.
So does this trial bring the Saddam chapter to a close?
* It shows that Saddam Hussein's regime really did lose the war and is not coming back.
* If the executions go ahead, there will soon be few of the old leadership left alive.
* The trials send out a clear message about the strength of the present Iraqi government.
* The legacy of Saddam Hussein and of the events that took place during his rule still affects every aspect of Iraqi life.
* Most Sunni and many Shia Muslims see the trials as victors' justice, so they cannot be regarded as fair.
* Many of Saddam's supporters will never accept the present government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.Reuse content