Joseph E. Persico’s excellent history of the Nuremberg trials, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial (1994), expressed the hope that future generations would use Nuremberg as a benchmark for legal procedure and prosecutorial conduct. He asks, “Does Nuremberg offer lessons, a usable matrix that can be salvaged from the bin of history and put to good service to deal with the war crimes of our era?” If we cast a reflective eye on the trial of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, then the answer to this question must be a resounding no.

The trial of Saddam Hussein is nevertheless of great historical interest. Not because of the trial’s fairness and justice (for it was neither), but for what it revealed about the character of the Iraqi leader, and for what it has to teach us about the response of that character to extreme adversity. These are the trial’s real points of interest. It is to these matters that we now turn.

Soon after the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the “Iraqi Special Tribunal” was created by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for the purpose of conducting trials of figures of the deposed regime. Heading this list, of course, was Saddam himself.

The CPA was the instrument of the occupying American military. Thus the Iraqi Special Tribunal was an attempt to give an Iraqi face to an American design. It was believed that trying Saddam in Iraq would lend legitimacy to the occupation and enhance the status of the government that had been installed in Baghdad at the points of American bayonets.

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Many, if not a majority, of the figures in the new government were people who had been persecuted during the Saddam years: Shia members of the Da’awa Party, Kurds, and exiles of various shades of credibility. These figures were more than happy to conduct a show trial of their hated enemy; most of them would have preferred to escort Saddam straight to the gallows with a minimum of legal fuss.

The taint of victors’ justice stained the dossier, and impugned the dignity, of the trial from the beginning, and never was removed. Brief consideration was given to conducting the trial in a proper international forum (such as The Hague), but those in power in Baghdad and Washington would not permit it.

Saddam’s first hearing was conducted in early July 2004. He was defiant and accusatory: he claimed that he was still the lawful president of Iraq, that he had been deposed illegally, and that the trial was nothing but political theatre. “The real criminal,” he claimed, “is Bush.” Judge Rizgar Mohammad Amin was generally tolerant of his famous defendant, permitting him to speak at length.

Saddam’s bearing here and in future appearances is worth nothing: his eyes flash with anger; he is intelligent and opportunistic; and his speeches have a crude, but effective, rhetorical power. These were the traits that assisted him on his rise to power; and they would now accompany him in his fall.

Saddam’s position was enhanced by reports in 2005 that he had refused an offer of house arrest for life—or possibly even release—if he ordered the Iraqi insurgents to lay down their arms. This he refused to do. By now Saddam was concerned only about his place in history; he had no faith in the promises of the Americans, and believed that, if he could go down with the flag flying, his example would inspire future generations.

Thus the stage was set for a remarkable series of courtroom appearances, in which a doomed man alternated between contemptuous defiance and militant rhetoric.

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The first “trial”, in October 2005, centered around the 1982 killing of civilians in Dujail (a village in Iraq) following a failed assassination attempt against Saddam. Saddam refused to recognize the authority of the court, and continued with political speeches. Two of his defense lawyers (Saadoun Sughaiyer al-Janabi and Adel al-Zubeidi) were abducted and murdered during the proceedings.

Saddam’s main defense attorney, Khamis al-Obeidi, was also murdered in Baghdad soon after. Many suspected that these killings were messages sent by pro-government militias: if you defend Saddam, you risk your life. Saddam later began a hunger strike to protest the lack of international protection for his defense counsel, but no protection was forthcoming.

In another display of interference with the legal process, the provisional government removed Chief Judge Amin (who was seen as too “lenient” to Saddam) and replaced him with an Iraqi Kurd named Rauf Rashid Abd al-Rahman. Al-Rahman was actually from the Kurdish town of Halabja, which had been the scene of a notorious chemical attack by Saddam’s security forces in the late 1980s. He did not, of course, recuse himself.

In June 2006, Ramsey Clark (a former US Attorney General and now one of Saddam’s attorneys) held a press conference claiming that the trial was a farce; that it was being manipulated by the Americans behind the scenes; and that the lack of security for the defense team was a deliberate tactic of intimidation.

Saddam’s court statements and interactions with Judge Rahman are worth watching. They show him at his defiant best. “Why don’t you bang your gavel on your head?” he tells Chief Judge Rahman. In one speech, he holds up one of his hands, his palm inscribed with scribbled notes. “The prosecution gets as much paper as they want,” he cries, “And yet Saddam Hussein has to write on his hands!”

Those knowledgeable of Ba’ath Party history recognized that Saddam brought with him a long tradition of trial dramatics, inherited from the party’s days as an underground opposition movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Chief Judge Rahman: an Iraqi Kurd from Halabja appointed to replace the first judge. Rahman himself was executed by insurgents near Baghdad in 2014.

But the outcome was never in doubt. On November 6, 2006, he was formally sentenced to death by hanging. He shook his fist and said, “Long live the people. Long live the Arab nation [al watan al-araby]. Down with the traitors.” His appeals—automatic under Iraqi law—were rejected, and the death sentence was confirmed by the provisional government.

There now remained on the last act of the drama. A letter written by Saddam and smuggled out of his jail urged the Iraqi people to unite and reject sectarian differences; he did not wish to prolong his death sentence, he stated, but was ready to have it carried out.

The execution was carried out on December 30, 2006 at a joint Iraqi-American military facility on the outskirts of Baghdad. When asked by an observer if he had any regrets or remorse, Saddam responded, “No, I am a militant and I have no fear for myself. I have spent my life in jihad and in fighting aggression. Anyone who takes this route should not be afraid.”

In a now infamous cell phone video of the execution, Saddam mounted the scaffold with dignity and restraint. The observers of the execution, mainly Shiite militiamen, are unable to restrain themselves from taunting Saddam; this, as well as the grainy video footage, gives the proceedings a grotesque and brutal aspect.

As the noose is placed around Saddam’s neck, some observers begin to call out “Muqtada…Muqtada” (a reference to Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr). Saddam gives it right back to them, contemptuously responding, “Muqtada! Is this the bravery of Arabs?” When one spectator tells Saddam to “go to hell”, he responds, “The hell that is Iraq?” And then the drama’s done.

Judge Rahman, the Chief Judge who had sentenced Saddam and his fellow defendants, was himself caught and executed by insurgents in the summer of 2014. And the cycle of violence continues in Iraq today.

He was a violent man, a cruel leader whose ambitions outran his abilities. His long rule saw Iraq make great strides in modernization and infrastructure, but at the cost of turning into a repressive police state where any form of dissent, no matter how minor, could invite retribution. With Saddam there was no sense of restraint, and no attempt at moderation, of his baser instincts; he was a gambler, and gamblers do not stop until they have lost everything.

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Defiant and dignified

Any temporary good he may have done his country was outweighed by the condition in which he left it: destitute, broken, and ruined. To find another like him, we would have to return to the days of the ancient kings of Assyria, to men like Tiglath-Pileser I or Ashurnasirpal I, who ruled their domains by fear and sought glory in conquest.

And yet despite all this, we must give him some grudging admiration for his performance at trial and on the gallows. We may favorably contrast his behavior with that of the defendants at Nuremberg (excepting Herman Goering, who cheated the hangman in one last act of defiance): Julius Streicher being dragged kicking and screaming to the scaffold; Albert Speer, whose acts of contrition look less like nobility and more like opportunism; and the condition of the others (e.g., Ribbentrop, Keitel, Frank, and Frick), who died broken and pathetic men.

We may also speculate on how Saddam’s contemporary peers on the world stage (i.e., various leaders in Europe and America) would have performed in similar circumstances.

His place in history is as yet uncertain. Whether his stature will increase or diminish with the passage of time cannot be said. He rose from the gutter to become absolute dictator of Iraq, and sought to make it a force on the world stage; but despite all his efforts, he was destroyed by his personal foibles, and brought himself and his nation to ruin.

And yet his conduct at trial and on the scaffold prove, despite all attempts to state otherwise, that he was not without bravery. He exited this world stage leaving us with much to ponder on the impenetrable nature of human character, and on the vagaries of Fortune.

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