Saddam's Other Crime

July 21, 2004

Saddam's Other Crime

 On July 1 in an Iraqi courtroom, Saddam Hussein was read the broad charges against him.

 On July 1 in an Iraqi courtroom, Saddam Hussein was read the broad charges against him. The charges were based on seven events:

The killings of religious figures in 1974;

The 1983 killing of 5,000 members of the Barzani clan;

The 1987-88 ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds;

The 1988 gassing of Kurd villagers in Halabja;

The 1990 invasion of Kuwait;

The suppression of Shiite and Kurd uprisings after the first Gulf War in 1991;

The 30-year campaign to kill political activists.

These charges conveniently and largely ignored Saddam's largest killing spree-the invasion of Iran and the ensuing eight-year war.  Last year, in this same space, I warned against the dangers of such selective justice ("Iraqi Trial Won't Address All The Crimes," In The National Interest, Volume 2, Issue 50, December 24, 2003).

Let me first repeat some facts about Saddam's war crimes against Iran and then turn to the reasons why Iraqis should not miss this opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to justice and why the U.S. (the power behind the interim government) will again appear as duplicitous in the eyes of many Muslims around the world if the war crimes against Iran are downplayed in this Iraqi courtroom.

Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. In December 1991, the Secretary General's finding stated: "Accordingly the outstanding event under the violations referred to in paragraph 5 above is the attack of 22 September 1980 against Iran, which cannot be justified under the Charter of the United Nations, any recognized rules and principles of international law or any principles of international morality and entails the responsibility for the conflict." This claim is further supported because Saddam signed the 1975 treaty, establishing joint control of the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, well before using them on Iraqi Kurds in 1988 for allegedly cooperating with Iran. In 1984, the UN documents the first uses of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian forces. Secretary General Perez de Cuellar states in his letter that the investigations of specialists in war zones in Iran conclude unanimously "chemical weapons in the form of aerial bombs have been used in the areas inspected in Iran by the specialists."

Using chemical weapons was not Saddam's only war crime against Iran. Mark Fineman, an American journalist, witnessed "Hussein's army slaughter thousands of Iranian soldiers in a rare and little known military operation that combined high technology, hatred and the horrors of war into a blend of brutality almost beyond comprehension." One of these involved the use of electricity. A switch would activate exposed electric cables on the battlefield just when Iranian soldiers advanced toward the Iraqi defense line on foot, killing hundreds of Iranians instantly; their bodies would later be used for the construction of a man-made road through the marshes.

During the course of this war, over 500,000 Iranians (with Iran claiming a figure close to 1 million) were killed (over 100,000 killed by chemical weapons alone) with more than 1 million injured. Crimes committed against Iran must be given at least as much, if not more, prominence as those against Kuwait.

The Iraqis chose an Iraqi trial of Saddam as opposed to an international one (à la Yugoslavia) or a mixed one (à la Rwanda). But it was always assumed that Saddam's international crimes would be given prominence. If the number of deaths is any measure of a crime, the invasion of Iran and the use of chemical weapons on Iranians exceed all of the other deaths caused by Saddam combined and easily surpass his atrocities in Kuwait. Let me first explain why justice for Iranians is important for the future of the region and then turn to its importance for the future of U.S.-Iranian relations.

Iran is the largest country on the Persian Gulf. Iran's population of over seventy million is more than the combined population of all of the other Gulf countries and dwarfs Iraq's population of twenty-five million. Despite Iran's troubled relations with Iraq, Iranians do not blame Iraqis for the eight-year war that Saddam started; they only blame Saddam. If Iraqis do not press Iranian claims against Saddam, then Iranians will interpret this omission as passive Iraqi approval of Saddam's invasion of Iran and of the ensuing atrocities. Iranian attitudes toward Iraq will change for the worse. Iran will not be able to move on. Iraqis who also lost hundreds of thousands of their loved ones in this tragic war will not be afforded the closure they need. Other Muslims may even see this omission as a sign that the Interim Iraqi Government has little or no independence from the U.S.

The region needs peace and stability as never before. Conflicts and wars have cost the region dearly in terms of economic progress and lives. The trial of Saddam would be an appropriate venue to come to terms with the past and to put to rest the war that had the largest human cost for the region since WWII. If justice is not forthcoming now, the past will haunt the region and could cause another conflict between Iran and Iraq; it will be only a matter of time.

Justice in this Iraqi court has also profound implications for U.S.-Iranian relations. The government in Baghdad is largely seen as a U.S. puppet by most Iranians. If Iranian claims against Saddam are not given just prominence while those of Kuwait are, then the proceedings will be seen as another sign of U.S. animosity and vindictiveness toward Iranians (and not just toward the Iranian government). It was Iranians, not the Iranian government, that suffered as a result of Saddam's aggression and it is Iranians who seek justice. If the U.S. is seen as the force behind such a miscarriage of justice, then the U.S. would have taken yet another step to poison future relations with Iran, not just with the Mullahs. 

The U.S. is letting its opposition to the Mullahs blind its every policy toward Iran. The lessons of "piling it on" to Germany (with Germany the perpetrator of the war, while Iran was the victim) after WWI seem to have been forgotten. One obvious reason why the U.S. and the Iraqis want to downplay Saddam's crimes against Iran is that the U.S. and Iraq do not want to give credibility to Iran's claim for reparations from Iraq.  Another reason could be that the US and Iraq do not want to afford Iran a platform to advertise its belligerence towards the U.S. But these are not a good enough reasons to press for selective justice and risk further regional discord.

It is not too late to give due prominence to Iranian claims against Saddam. If Iran's claims are without merit then the worst that can happen is that they will be fairly rejected for the whole world to see, affording Iraq and the U.S. their just respect and improving the prospects for regional stability.


Hossein Askari is Iran Professor of International Business and Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University.