BAGHDAD â€” Saddam Hussein sat in the dock last Wednesday in the building which once housed the national and international headquarters of his Baath Party in Baghdad, looked up at the senior judge on the bench, and paused for a beat or two before answering his question.
â€œI’ve said what I have to say, and I’m innocent,â€ he answered.
A plea of not guilty to the charges of ordering the massacre of 143 men in the town of Dujail in 1982 was entered.
But what was Saddam saying? That none of the crimes with which he has been accused were really committed by him? That his underlings carried them out without his orders or knowledge?
Surely not. The prosecution has â€” or said in court that it had â€” a document from Saddam’s officials requesting permission to carry out the executions. It is countersigned in Saddam’s characteristic red ink with the word in Arabic meaning â€œI accept.â€
According to government officials in Baghdad, the prosecution has a similar document which links Saddam with the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.
Unless, at the end of the Dujail case, the Iraqi government decides it has sufficient grounds to execute Saddam for that alone, a trial for the Halabja massacre will follow.
And there could be a couple more after that, perhaps relating to the invasions of Iran in 1980 and of Kuwait in 1990.
Even without the evidence of the documents, it is unthinkable in a system as ferociously controlled as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that senior or junior officers might have done any of these things on their own authority.
Saddam must know that the only way this process will end is with his execution â€” unless, of course, his lawyers can string it out until the point where he would be too old to be executed.
We should not automatically assume that he wants to be martyred. When he was discovered in his cleverly concealed foxhole near the town of Tikrit, he did not use his gun to die in a blaze of glory.
Instead, he put his hands up and told the American soldiers who found him that he wanted to negotiate.
Perhaps he believes that the resistance movement can force the Americans and their few remaining allies to leave Iraq, and that he can make a come-back.
You and I might find the idea of a comeback unlikely. But if you are all alone in your cell with no one except a few GIs and a box of some strange American breakfast cereal for company, it is not always easy to see things as they really are.
So maybe he is merely playing for time, hoping the lawyers will carry on arguing until something comes up.
But something much bigger probably underlies his plea of not guilty â€” the sense that, even if he was responsible for ordering the Dujail massacre, he was innocent of doing anything wrong.
Saddam’s notion of governing a restless, difficult country like Iraq was that it could only be done with ferocity.
In that he was no different from the presidents and kings before him; no different either from the British, who had the mandate from the League of Nations to run Iraq after 1920, and who used some ferocious tactics to try to protect their rule.
They took over, full of the conviction that as the most powerful military nation on earth, with the best political system in human history, the Iraqis would be delighted to be ruled by them.
Within six months the British were negotiating a way out, and after twelve years (imperial powers hate to seem to be cutting and running) they gave up the mandate and left.
Whether history will repeat itself now, we will have to wait and see.
Like the British, like the kings, like coup leader General Qassem and the rest, Saddam believed he had a right to govern Iraq by force.
When his ambassador in London was called into the Foreign Office in 1988 to receive a formal complaint about the use of chemical weapons at Halabja, where five thousand men, women and children died, his answer was simple: â€œBut they’re our people.â€ In other words, Saddam could do what he liked with them.
It is a simple enough justification. If the job of keeping Iraq together required it, Saddam believed, then any amount of force was justified. He did not kill people merely because he was blood-thirsty; in fact, unlike his unspeakable son Uday, Saddam seemed to gain no particular pleasure from having people tortured and murdered. It was simply something that had to be done.
Saddam may have a longer term ambition, other than simply keeping on existing â€” to turn himself into a martyr.