One month after the high profile arraignment of Saddam Hussein, the special war crimes tribunal to prosecute him has taken a bizarre turn for the worse. It's fast becoming about Salem instead of Saddam.
Last weekend an Iraqi judge issued a warrant for the arrest of Salem Chalabi, the general director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. He is the nephew of Ahmed Chalabi, who was once the darling of the Pentagon but is now also facing a warrant for arrest. Nephew Salem has been named as a suspect in the June murder of Iraq's former director general of the finance ministry. Currently in Britain, he has refused to return to Iraq, where he may face the death penalty – which, ironically, the Iraqis reinstated last week with Saddam in mind.
Salem Chalabi, despite the lack of experience running a court, was appointed to run the special tribunal by a committee headed by his uncle. His appointment further raised eyebrows in Iraq, in part because Salem Chalabi has close ties of his own to senior officials in the Bush administration. In the face of a golden opportunity to rally Iraqis together in common cause against the horrors of Saddam Hussein's reign, it appeared like the Coalition Provisional Authority picked an American puppet from the Pentagon-favored Iraqi National Congress to manage the delicate and politically-charged process.
The first sign of trouble emerged when the Iraqi National Congress, and not the Iraqi interim government, announced his appointment to the tribunal. Then, instead of stepping up to the administrative plate, Chalabi sought to become an international media sensation, commenting on American television about which individuals would be put on trial for what crimes – a task that typically resides with prosecutors and judges, not allegedly-impartial administrators.
This latest development inflicts yet another blow to the already-crippled credibility of the tribunal, which has been tainted from day one by American fingerprints. The Bush administration refused to allow the United Nations to play a supporting role in Iraq, as it has done in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia. As a result, dozens of U.S. government lawyers are in Baghdad assembling the cases, and the tribunal's three-year $75 million price tag is being borne entirely by the American taxpayer.
Damaged as it may be, the tribunal can still be salvaged. First and foremost, Chalabi should be relieved of his duties. True or false, the charges against him will continue to be a distraction that the tribunal can ill afford. The longer the story focuses on Chalabi, the less it does on Saddam, where it rightfully belongs. His removal would mark a clean break from the perception of a heavy-handed U.S. role and restore a much-needed degree of credibility to the tribunal.
Second, the administration must put aside its unrealistic and naïve assumptions that the Iraqis welcome the United States' influence in the tribunal. Drafted by Pentagon lawyers, the existing court statute allows for international advisors to guide and assist Iraqi lawyers. To date, the United States has monopolized the effort. Working with the United Nations, an international slate of candidates should be identified to replace American advisors. Explicit language in a new Security Council resolution should call upon nations to coordinate their contributions – material, financial, and personnel – through the office of the new United Nations Special Representative on the ground.
Third, the tribunal must become more than a photo opportunity. If handled wisely, Saddam's trial could represent a new beginning for Iraq – one dictated by the rule of law and a new standard of accountability. To truly succeed, the tribunal must be seen as one part of the larger effort to rehabilitate judicial structures destroyed by decades of neglect and abuse. Seeing Saddam and his cronies put to justice in a transparent, fair, and functioning Iraqi court – which he denied to his victims – would have a powerful effect throughout the country.
While the fate of the Iraq tribunal will ultimately rest with the interim Iraqi government, it is in our interests to support concrete measures aimed at putting the tribunal back on track. The people of Iraq deserve a transparent and detailed accounting of Saddam's brutal crimes. As Saddam's recent appearance demonstrated, the trials will be fraught with thorny political and legal intricacies. Chalabi's continued involvement threatens a mismanaged trial that could easily do more harm than good. He must go.
Michael Pan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress and a former political advisor to the chief prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Amanda Terkel is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.