Leading article: It's too late for the conviction of Saddam to help heal Iraq

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Shed no tears for Saddam. He was undoubtedly guilty of mass murder. Not only of 148 people in Dujail in 1982 but tens or even hundreds of thousands of others. The chemical weapons attack he ordered on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 alone killed at least 5,000. These were not the isolated, berserk acts of an otherwise even-handed man - one of those efficient dictators who "make trains run on time". Saddam wrecked and ravaged his luckless country. Iraq had much going for it before he seized power in the 1970s. A catastrophic war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and more than two decades of incompetent tyranny blighted the hopes of all those who had expected something better to emerge from the overthrow of the monarchy.

If any toppled head of state deserves the death penalty, he does. Even the most consistent opponents of the invasion and occupation must concede that Iraqi courts had a right to put him on trial, even if an international court might arguably have handled the case better. As for the final decision, anything other than a guilty verdict would have been an utter travesty and an insult to the countless dead Kurds, Marsh Arabs, Shias and others.

Nevertheless, those who have rushed to hail this as a defining moment in Iraq's history, including Iraq's Prime Minister and the US ambassador, have succumbed to pitiful self-delusion. This was not the longed-for moment of "closure". It has solved nothing, ended nothing, healed nothing.

True, the finish of the trial is unlikely to deepen Iraq's sectarian divisions - if only because the chasms are now so unbridgeable that almost nothing could make them wider. The impact of the verdict on the country is merely a grim reminder of their existence; witness the sight of Kurds rejoicing in the north, Shias evincing a certain grim satisfaction and Sunnis voicing their sullen dismay and defiance in Baghdad, the west, and especially in Saddam's home town of Tikrit.

Neither the trial nor its outcome will have the slightest effect on the insurgency, which rages on with a will of its own, impervious to goings-on in a heavily-guarded courtroom near Baghdad airport. The myth that Saddam's Baathist cronies were the main figures in the insurgency has long since been exposed as nonsense.

In a perverse way, Saddam benefited from his trial. He may not have saved his life but he shored up his reputation, tapping into resentment felt by Iraqis over the occupation. Even as all-powerful life president, he never had so much exposure on Iraqi television as he has had since the trial started last October. Like that other dethroned strongman, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, he used his podium to effect, wisely twinning his own plight with that of his nation's perceived humiliation.

Whether the trial was as unfair as he and some human rights organisations have claimed is questionable. It is certainly a coincidence that it ended days before mid-term elections in America. And yes, it was predicated on victor's justice. But it was not a lynching or a show trial. Saddam should know the difference, having organised a kangaroo court for the miserable inhabitants of Dujail in 1982 before sending them to their deaths.

Overall, the court established that he was guilty. The real tragedy is that it no longer seems to matter very much. The significance of Saddam's worst deeds has been virtually obviated in most Iraqi minds by more recent, daily, slaughters of innocent civilians.

Had Iraq now become the showcase for Middle Eastern democracy that Mssrs Bush and Blair promised, Saddam's trial might have been the crowning achievement of the process. As it is, it seems an irrelevancy in a country gripped by a civil war.

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