Saddam: What happens next?

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Indy Politics

A cool and supremely confident President George Bush has promised to work with Iraqis for a fair and fully public trial for Saddam Hussein, in which "the atrocities would come out and justice be delivered".

At a year-end press conference yesterday dominated by the captured Iraqi dictator, Mr Bush addressed what has become the most burning issue since Saddam was hauled out alive from his "spider hole" near Tikrit on Saturday: how, when, and by whom he would be tried, and whether he would be liable to the death penalty.

Asked whether Saddam deserved execution, Mr Bush ­ who as governor of Texas presided over scores of executions ­ paused for a long moment, before replying: "He'll be detained. We'll work with the Iraqis to develop a way to try him that will stand international scrutiny."

But the shape of any tribunal was unclear. In London, Tony Blair said: "Of course we must make sure that there is a proper and independent and fair process. But I am quite sure that the Iraqis have the capability of doing that." Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Iraq's transitional Governing Council, said: "If it is proven that he is guilty, he could be condemned to death."

The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said that the UN had never set up a court which carried the death penalty. "So as secretary general ... I am not going to now turn around and support a death penalty," he said.

Amnesty International insisted: "Like any other criminal suspect, he is entitled to all relevant safeguards under international law, including the right not to be subjected to torture or ill-treatment and to receive a fair trial." One option now is a Nuremberg-style trial, which might raise suggestions of "victors' justice". Another is something akin to the Hague tribunal, where the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for war crimes.

A third possibility, and the one with most international support, is a public trial in Iraq, conducted by Iraqis. This course is also favoured by leaders of the Governing Council.

It might also reduce complaints in the wider Arab world about "victors' justice". But at this stage in the rebuilding process, the country does not have a legal system capable of handling so high-profile a trial, legal experts here argue. European countries such as Britain (if not the US) are also uncomfortable at the possibility of a capital sentence.

Wherever Saddam is tried, proceedings are expected to focus on human rights abuses. The crimes for which Saddam would be indicted are expected to include the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, in which 100,000 civilians died; the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurds; the killing spree against the Shia and Kurdish populations after the failed 1991 uprisings in the north and south; and the repression of the Marsh Arabs. "Good riddance," President Bush declared, when asked what was his message to Saddam, before adding : "He's through."

After his measured White House address on Sunday, a few hours after news of America's greatest success in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, Mr Bush was back in more familiar mode yesterday, with Western-style swagger and erratic syntax (he tangled up "commiserate" and "commensurate"). Addressing the circumstances of the former dictator, Mr Bush scornfully declared: "When the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in."

Saddam's whereabouts remained a mystery yesterday. Despite reports that he had been taken to Qatar, US Central Command headquarters during the war proper, both American and Iraqi officials insisted he was still in Iraq. The most likely location is the massively protected detention centre at Baghdad airport, where high-level prisoners are held. The word is that interrogations have yielded a good deal of Saddam's familiar rhetoric and bluster, but few good leads. One US official is said to have described the captured leader as acting like a "wise-ass".

Mr Bush himself doubted that Saddam would have much reliable information to imparton resistance inside Iraq, or about the existence of his elusive weapons of mass destruction ­ the ostensible reason for the US/British invasion in March. Mr Bush described his defeated adversary as "a deceiver, a liar, a torturer and a murderer". He warned too that violence in Iraq would not end with the disappearance of Saddam from the scene ­ as evidenced by yesterday's suicide bombings in Baghdad ­ nor would the US troop presence in Iraq automatically be reduced.

The size of the American deployment, currently some 130,000 out of a total coalition strength of 154,000, would "depend on the security situation on the ground". As he spoke, James Baker, a Bush family friend and a former secretary of state, prepared to leave on a critical trip to Europe ­ ostensibly to have debt run up by Saddam's regime forgiven.

A few days after the Pentagon barred opponents of the invasion from bidding for Iraqi reconstruction contracts, Mr Bush struck a much more conciliatory note towards France and Germany. It was in America's interest, too, that all three countries co-operated.

There might have been disagreement on "this particular issue" ­ the Iraq invasion ­ but Mr Bush disputed that the issue would prove a historic watershed in relations between the US and what Donald Rumsfeld, his Defence Secretary, once contemptuously described as "old Europe".

In particular the President cited the recent initiative by Britain, France and Germany to press Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. The press conference displayed an incumbent's well-tried gambits on the eve of a presidential election year.

Mr Bush portrayed himself as tending to the nation's business while his Democratic challengers sniped from the sidelines. His job was to make America safer. "I look forward to the political debate later on."