The conduct of this trial will determine what sort of state Iraq will become

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The image of Saddam Hussein in court, in shackles and under guard, will be the most potent symbol that the regime in Iraq has changed. It is a symbol that the US and Iraqi authorities are both using - and will doubtless continue to use - to full advantage. With yesterday's transfer of the former dictator into Iraqi jurisdiction, President Bush can argue that sovereignty has been truly transferred - and that, by implication, his Iraqi adventure has been a success. The Iraqi Prime Minister, for his part, can use the handover of Saddam Hussein to claim that his interim government is no US puppet, but wields real authority.

The image of Saddam Hussein in court, in shackles and under guard, will be the most potent symbol that the regime in Iraq has changed. It is a symbol that the US and Iraqi authorities are both using - and will doubtless continue to use - to full advantage. With yesterday's transfer of the former dictator into Iraqi jurisdiction, President Bush can argue that sovereignty has been truly transferred - and that, by implication, his Iraqi adventure has been a success. The Iraqi Prime Minister, for his part, can use the handover of Saddam Hussein to claim that his interim government is no US puppet, but wields real authority.

If this public relations exercise can help to convince the people of Iraq that there is hope for the future, and so reduce the carnage on the streets, then so much the better. But it should not blind us to the perilous situation that remains in Iraq. And there are risks in this ambiguity.

For when Saddam Hussein is formally charged with the long list of crimes against his people in Baghdad today, the reality will not completely match the symbolism. Saddam remains under American guard, and so long as the US has "the body", they have ultimate power over it. Many Iraqis may draw a parallel between this and the fact that although Iraq is theoretically "sovereign", thousands of US troops remain who are largely unanswerable to Iraq's government.

From now on, the questions will only multiply. There can be no certainty that the interim Iraqi government is invested with the authority to put Saddam on trial. The tribunal now responsible for Saddam's fate was established by the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) with the express purpose of prosecuting members of the former regime. But the IGC was not a fully representative body - it was appointed, not elected - and neither is the present interim government. In an ideal world, the tribunal would postpone any decisive action until it had a mandate from an elected government. If the current timetable for elections is observed, this would mean at the earliest in the first months of next year. Realistically, but regrettably, impatience will probably carry the day.

A further question relates to the application of the death penalty. Downing Street yesterday removed doubts about its stance when it made clear that it had waived its opposition to execution in this case. The logic may be that Iraq, as a sovereign state, has the right to decide for itself the penalties that attach to particular crimes. Again, it would be preferable if this task were left for an elected government with a constitution to rely on. And again, realistically, this appears unlikely. There is also an argument that, if convicted but not executed, Saddam could become a figure around whom disgruntled opponents of the new regime could rally. There may be times when Nuremberg, rather than the European Court of Justice, is the more appropriate model.

It is understandable that Iraqis want to administer justice themselves: a trial will be a vital part of banishing the past and laying the foundations of the new state. And the US essentially allowed for this early in the occupation. However great the temptation to keep such a trophy in their custody, the Americans must not renege on that undertaking.

Whether Saddam Hussein stands trial in the coming weeks or much later, the best that can probably be hoped for is that the proceedings should have international jurists as observers and be conducted to internationally recognised standards. There may well be pressure, from the families of those who fell victim to Saddam's regime and from the many who felt the harshness of his rule themselves, to press for more summary justice. Any resort to the lynch mob, however, must be resisted.

These are critical days for Iraq. How Saddam Hussein is treated will say much about the sort of state that Iraq is likely to become. Punctilious observance of judicial proprieties would be the best augury for a stable and law-governed Iraq in the future.

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