He's as shameless as ever. The Arab news channel Al Arabiya aired a video clip of Saddam Hussein last week confidently asserting his rights before an Iraqi Special Tribunal judge. "Is this how the law works?" the jailed ex-dictator demanded. "The defendant doesn't see his lawyer until he is in court? And doesn't know there is a hearing until he gets there?" He said it indignantly, as if he had no memory of the thousands of Iraqis who were tortured and summarily killed during his reign. And yet the tribunal's biggest responsibility is to make sure this defendant gets an impeccably fair trial. The proceedings will have little point unless they show that the new government is nothing like the old one.

The final verdict is practically a foregone conclusion. What can't be predicted is how the country will react. U.S. and Iraqi officials want the former leader's trial to be cathartic--a healing event for Iraq's people--and there's no doubt that most Iraqis are eager to see him face justice. But American officials worry privately that bringing Saddam to court in the crucial--and volatile--weeks ahead might actually make things worse. It could feed the Sunni Arab minority's distrust of the newly empowered Shiite majority and threaten to further disrupt the drafting of a new constitution if, as some fear, the coming Aug. 15 deadline for that is missed. Sunni Arabs are the backbone of the insurgency, led by former military and political officers loyal to Saddam's now outlawed Baath Party, and terrorist attacks may intensify when the dictator's trial phase finally begins.

Those hopes and fears may be nearing a test. The tribunal's chief judge, Raid Juhi, announced last week that investigators were ready to file their first criminal case against the former leader. The tribunal has been looking at Saddam in connection with 14 separate alleged crimes against humanity, including gas attacks and mass executions of thousands of Kurdish and Shiite civilians and the killings of religious and political figures over three decades. The first case ready for trial is a relatively little-known incident: the 1982 killing of dozens of Shiite villagers at Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against the dictator. The Iraqi legal system says that after investigators refer a case to trial, the prosecutor must wait at least 45 days before taking it to court. That could mean a trial in early September.

But not necessarily. The ambitious secular Shiite politician Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister in charge of de-Baathification, is threatening to purge Saddam's former party members from the tribunal. Last week the tribunal dismissed nine staff members, all of them alleged Baath loyalists who were accused of scheming to delay the proceedings against Saddam. "As many as a third of IST investigators could be accused of being former Baathists, including Juhi himself," says a senior judicial source with knowledge of the case, requesting anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity of the proceedings. "If that happens, all the investigations they undertook have to be started all over again."

Many Iraqis accuse U.S. officials of stalling, trying to avoid a re-examination of America's ties to Saddam in the 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran, and the dictator was photographed shaking Donald Rumsfeld's hand. "Who allowed Saddam to invade Kuwait in the first place?" asked Iraq's current Justice minister, Abdel Hussein Shandel, in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. "Was there a green light given to him?" The Americans deny trying to hide anything and say they only want Baghdad to take the time needed to prepare rock-solid cases. Any flaws can only aid Saddam and others in their efforts to discredit the tribunal. "It is a game," the fallen despot told the judge. That's one thing no one ever said about Saddam's criminal system.

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