Fair's fair

October 18, 2005

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that approval of Iraq's new constitution would be a good thing. (Forget, for the moment, the document's profound flaws; they can surely be fixed later.) And let's say - and there should be less argument on this score - that Saddam Hussein's conviction in the trial scheduled to begin tomorrow would also be a good thing. So does it matter how Iraq gets to either of those desirable goals?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Fairness, in politics and in justice, has to be seen to be believed. And if perceptions that the fix is in - in either the referendum or the trial - become too entrenched, Iraq will be looking at the prospect not of reconciliation but of further strife.

The initial reports from Saturday's voting were that turnout was high - higher than in elections last January - and that it appeared the proposed constitution was headed for ratification. The resistant Sunni Arabs split three ways: some for, some against, some boycotting. Many, in Washington and elsewhere, were relieved that a large number had at least taken part in the process, and saw in this the hope that they could be drawn further and further into politics, thus isolating the insurgents.

But some Sunni leaders were quick to denounce the early results as a fraud - and that charge took on much greater currency late yesterday when the election commission said it had uncovered seriously fishy numbers in 12 of the country's 18 provinces. Here's the deal: Sunnis who might be persuaded to take part in Iraq's democratic experiment will walk if they believe the ruling Shiites and Kurds are not only ganging up against them but willing to cheat, brazenly, to stay in power.

In court, Iraqi prosecutors have decided to pursue charges against Mr. Hussein and seven others stemming from the deaths of about 140 people in a single village 23 years ago. Rather than lay out the big case against the dictator, they have chosen to fasten on to one specific incident in order to secure a conviction. (More trials may follow.) This is quite different from the way Slobodan Milosevic is being handled in the interminable, sprawling spectacle of a trial at The Hague, and it may be better.

But international observers have questioned the lax standard of proof required to convict Mr. Hussein, and the independence and impartiality of the court itself. Why does this matter, as long as it sends him to either prison or the gallows? Here's the deal: Sunni Arabs, generally, are highly skeptical of the proceedings, and any impression that the former tyrant is being railroaded will unfortunately serve to make a martyr out of him. This should be the last thing that any sensible Iraqi would want.

The unhappy Sunni Arabs have to be a part of an Iraq at peace. In reaching a constitution, and in achieving justice for past crimes, Iraqis must understand that form is in some ways just as important as substance.

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