Iraqis can turn the page on a brutal chapter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 December, 2003, 12:00am

The scenes of spontaneous jubilation that greeted Saddam Hussein's capture were unmistakable. The Iraqi people were celebrating the downfall of a man who ruled his fellow citizens for more than three decades through methods that relied on fear, torture and intimidation. His domestic policies and wars against neighbours impoverished a once-proud and wealthy country - and made Iraq a pariah among nations. Now, with Hussein's capture, Iraqis can at last begin to close this brutal and tragic chapter in their history. Energies that had once been poured into self-preservation in the face of tyranny can now be harnessed to help rebuild their country.

There are, of course, unknowns which make such rebuilding a less than straightforward task. It is not clear to what extent Hussein orchestrated the anti-coalition attacks that have plagued Iraq since major combat was declared over on May 1. If he was involved, either through inspiration or direct leadership, his capture may bring some measure of stability to a country that is effectively still in a state of siege. But if, as reported in some quarters, the insurgents and resistance fighters are independent cells made up of foreigners or Iraqis unaffiliated with Hussein, it is in no way certain that the fighting will now end. The promises of full Iraqi sovereignty by next July must be kept, but much hard work still lies ahead for coalition forces and the international community if the Iraq that is handed back is to be a stable country on its way towards democracy and prosperity.

Whether the violence and terror attacks end immediately, it is clear that the capture is a significant milestone in the war. Most importantly for the Iraqi people, it means that Hussein will be brought to justice. If an open and fair trial is delivered as promised, there will be a chance for the people to understand and put Hussein's brutal reign behind them.

A possible court for such a trial would be the tribunal approved last week by the Iraqi governing council. Even before Hussein's capture, there was discussion of trying him in absentia. Drawing on international law and staffed by Iraqi judges, the tribunal has targeted the old regime's crimes against Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ites, as well as human rights violations during Hussein's campaigns against Iran and Kuwait. The interests of the Iraqi people would best be served through such a court and a cleansing process can now proceed in a way that might not have been possible if Hussein had been killed before being captured.

Many lawyers and activists have laboured behind the scenes for years to build cases against Saddam Hussein's regime and evidence from mass graves attributed to his brutal rule is still being unearthed. Bringing the former leader and his top lieutenants to justice would lay the groundwork for reconciliation and reconstruction - through psychological catharsis and also by allowing the country to finally tap the talent, knowledge and energy of those who served unwillingly in Hussein's administration.

For those Iraqis who did not really believe that the tyrant was out of power, the capture will come as a relief. The cloud of fear under which they lived, up until his confirmed capture, was real. The scenes of celebration were also genuine. It was a great day for Iraqis. But much hard work remains ahead, for Iraqis and the international community. Aid that other nations promised has to now be delivered and a feasible solution found to lifting the burden of the billions in international debt left behind by Hussein's government.

It is in the interests of all Iraqis to listen to appeals to end ethnic and religious factionalism - for Iraqis to think of the future. They can and must, for the first time in decades, dare to imagine a life that is not dominated by Saddam Hussein.