WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In a region where leaders seldom fall from power, and where those who do are likely to be tried in a hasty and secret proceeding followed by exile or death, the public trial of Saddam Hussein will be a milestone for the Arab world.
Yet even as millions of Arabs watch on satellite television as a once-all-powerful dictator is held accountable, it's not clear that their reaction to the trial will favor the United States and its aim of democratizing the region, analysts and diplomats say.
Instead, the trial next year, like yesterday's brief arraignment, is likely to inspire a mix of hatred of Hussein, shame at what he represents and wounded pride that a head of state is being publicly tried and that it took an American invasion, and not Arab action, to topple him, they said.
While Iraqis might be "delighted" to see Hussein face justice, outside the nation he ruled mercilessly for more than two decades there will be "a combination of Arab nationalism, a sense of failure over [Hussein's] human rights abuses and a backlash of pride against seeing an Arab president tried," said Phebe Marr, a scholar on the region and author of The Modern History of Iraq.
A senior U.S. official who follows Middle East events suggested that the trial would serve as only a modest catalyst for change in the region. More important, the official said, would be Iraq's progress in quelling the insurgency and holding the nation's first democratic elections, scheduled for no later than Jan. 31.
In fact, many pivotal events - including the vote for a National Assembly and the formation of a new government - are likely to occur before Hussein's trial starts.
Drawn to broadcast
In Washington yesterday, Arab diplomats were drawn to several Arab-language channels that broadcast Hussein's arraignment as well as providing rapid man-in-the street commentary, much of it negative, from Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Lebanese.
The court hearing was the opening phase in a case that Iraqi exiles and U.S. government legal analysts have been preparing for months, drawing on years of evidence collection and research into war-crimes trials. The trial is to be conducted, under Iraqi law, by Iraqi lawyers and judges, with guidance from Americans.
Hussein's capture last year was widely viewed as a key step in relieving the state of fear that had gripped Iraqis for much of his rule, and his trial is seen as a catharsis for those who suffered under his regime.
The appearance of Hussein yesterday - lucid, pugnacious and seemingly healthy - was a stark contrast with the way deposed Iraqi leaders have been treated in the past. When one of Hussein's predecessors, Abd al-Karim Qassem, was overthrown in 1963, a film clip of his bullet-riddled corpse was shown repeatedly on Iraqi television.
Nevertheless, the arraignment did not seem to put Iraq's fledgling, U.S.-guided criminal justice system in the most favorable light. Also, the continued presence of nearly 140,000 American troops can only heighten Arab skepticism about how fair the trial will be, diplomats said.
"The initial reaction today isn't a very positive one from the Arab street," a senior Arab diplomat said. "They don't see that this has been well-thought-out. The judge didn't seem to be on top of things."
"Saddam should have had his legal counsel there as well," said the diplomat, echoing commentary recorded by satellite networks. The delay in releasing an audio recording, the diplomat said, fed suspicion that the proceeding was being censored by the U.S. military.
'He's a criminal'
None of the Arab diplomats reached yesterday would be quoted by name. Some of their negative comments could reflect their governments' worry that the trial might direct public anger toward Arab regimes that are led by either dynasties or long-serving autocratic rulers.
Some of the diplomats said they believed some Arabs would be disturbed by the fact that while Hussein's proceeding was televised, no cameras were allowed at the courts-martial of American soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
The Hussein case "may end up feeding into the resentment people have about U.S. foreign policy," one diplomat said.
At the same time, many Arabs share with the majority of Iraqis a view of Hussein as a failure who led his nation into two disastrous wars and committed grave human rights abuses, diplomats said.
"I don't know if anyone really cares what happens to Saddam at this stage," one diplomat said. "He's a criminal; everyone knows that."
But another diplomat suggested that hatred for Hussein would be tempered by a seething resentment of American military forces, who are seen as occupiers even though Iraq's new government wants them to stay and help stabilize the country.
The trial will be a painful experience for many Arabs, because it will confront them with the sorry history of their evolving relationship with Hussein, said Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League envoy to the United States.
Viewed at the outset of his regime as a staunch Arab nationalist, Hussein later developed the image of a secular reformer and finally was seen as a ruthless dictator.
"They feel that part of their history is being tried," said Maksoud, who heads the Center for the Global South at American University. "And, surreptitiously, they're being tried, too. He is part of their collective memory - both the illusions they had about him and the collective disillusionment that ensued."
Arabs, Maksoud suggested, feel relief that Hussein has been removed from power and "a sense of shame and embarrassment that they didn't do it themselves," instead leaving the task to U.S. invaders.
But analysts noted that in several countries, particularly Jordan and the smaller Persian Gulf states, government officials are more reform-minded and Western-leaning than many of their citizens are, though no nation other than Iraq plans to hold elections of its top leadership.
Maksoud said the region is in too much turmoil for the trial to spur a major movement toward democracy. Still, if the trial is seen as fair, he said, it will likely put other leaders on notice.
"It would lead to an atmosphere where accountability is much more available," Maksoud said.