The trial of Saddam Hussein is in crisis. Last week, the chief judge, Rizgar Amin, offered his resignation, accusing the Iraqi government of interfering in the process. And two days ago, Judge Amin's replacement, Sayeed al-Hamashi, was accused of being a member of Saddam's Baath Party and called upon to resign, too. Some have wondered whether the trial can survive such a double blow to its credibility.
Judge Amin stepped aside because he resented the angry letters he was receiving from the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, accusing him of losing control of the trial and allowing Saddam to make a mockery of the process. It was clearly a mistake for Mr Jaafari to pressure the court in this way. The Iraqi prime minister's anger towards Saddam is understandable. Many of his relatives and colleagues were killed on the orders of this man, and it must be galling to see the old tyrant grandstanding in front of the court's cameras. But what did he expect? That Saddam should have been beaten whenever he interrupted proceedings?
The truth is that Judge Amin had been doing a reasonable job under almost intolerable circumstances and was well regarded by most of the court. Now the Iraqi government has been left with the worst of both worlds. Saddam still has a platform for his ravings, and the impartiality of the court has been compromised. The former Iraqi leader can now claim that this whole affair is nothing more than a politically manipulated show trial, more concerned with vengeance than justice.
This latest breakdown raises, once again, the question of whether it is physically possible to conduct a proper trial in Iraq, a country where the central government's writ appears limited to Baghdad's Green Zone and where a state of emergency exists in many provinces. Under these circumstances, how can trial witnesses be located and given protection? How is it possible to ensure the safety of lawyers and judges, a number of whom already have been murdered?
Of course, Iraqi demands for justice against Saddam are quite justified. He has been formally accused of ordering the killings of 148 Shia in Dujail in 1982, but this is only the crime for which there is relatively clear evidence pointing to Saddam's culpability. In reality, no one disputes he was responsible for thousands of murders in Iraq. Yet, in retrospect, it was probably a poor idea to start the process of bringing the old guard to justice by putting Saddam himself on trial. It would have been better to begin the process with generals and officials further down the chain of command, thus building up an accurate picture of the Saddam regime. The dictator's trial should have waited for a time of greater stability.
The idea that this trial will prove some sort of cathartic experience for Iraq now looks sadly mistaken. No one seriously believes any more that, if Saddam is found guilty, it will bring the bloody insurgency to a halt. Iraqis made up their minds about Saddam's guilt long ago. The Shia and Kurdish communities no doubt think he should be executed. And even most Sunnis condemn him for leading their country to humiliation. The religious fanatics who have entered Iraq since the invasion certainly don't regard the man who used to persecute them with any affection. Claims by the Bush administration that Saddam is some sort of figurehead for the insurgency sound increasingly desperate.
The trial will survive this crisis. The White House's demand for television-friendly "events" in Iraq that can be presented as evidence that the US is "winning" will make sure of that. A new judge will be found, if necessary. But it is surely delusional to imagine that what occurs in that courtroom will have any effect on the bloody mess to which Iraq has been reduced.