Saddam's Underpants are not the Issue.

In Robert Bolt's play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More is confronted by Richard Rich, whose perjury will lead to More's execution. More's son-in-law, William Roper, urges More to arrest Rich. More answers that Rich has broken no law and is free to go. "And go he should if he was the Devil himself until he broke the law!"

Roper accuses More of granting benefit of law to the devil. "What would you do?" More asks. "Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - Man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

No one need feel sorrow for Saddam Hussein, who in many eyes incarnates diabolic evil. His crimes themselves condemn him. That does not excuse demolishing the edifice of international and humanitarian law to depose and humiliate him. We must feel sorrow, not for the tyrant, but for our loss of international order enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The United States and its British acolytes have brushed international law - and the protections it implied for us all - to pursue their crusade to control Iraq and intimidate its neighbors. Saddam's underwear is not the issue. Law is.

There is a strong whiff of self-righteousness in the Pentagon's shock that The Sun would publish photographs of a semi-clad Saddam Hussein when the Pentagon itself broadcast the first, degrading images of his open-jawed medical examination just after his capture in December 2003. Equally self-righteous is The Sun's protest that the military source who supplied its pictures did so "in the hope of dealing a body blow to the resistance in Iraq" and "to destroy the myth". Since Saddam fell from power, there has not been much of a myth to destroy. If The Sun were really seeking to give the greatest exposure to the exposed ex-dictator, why is it charging other publications about $20,000 for pictures it said cost the paper somewhat more than 500?

Saddam Hussein is Prisoner Number One in a global American system of incarceration centered on Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. His treatment has been mild compared to that meted out to the 25 who have died in custody since 2002, the children who were allegedly raped by their guards, those tortured and beaten and the many who linger for years without charge or trial. At the beginning of this month, US officials admitted that the US was detaining 11,300 people in Iraq alone - double the number held last October.

During her recent visit to Iraq, American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "I have confidence in the Iraqi government's desire and capability to live up to its obligations for international standards concerning the treatment of Saddam Hussein."

The Iraqi government is not holding Saddam. The US is, at least until Saddam is convicted. American and Iraqi officials repeat again and again that his trial is imminent. Last November, then prime minister Iyad Allawi said that Saddam's trial would take place in one month. The current planning minister, Barham Saleh, said last week that "in the next few months Saddam Hussein could be brought before the court". Iraq's new president, the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, said that if a court sentences Saddam to death, he will not sign the decree. There seems little urgency to hold a trial in which Saddam's foreign accomplices - many of them in office and corporate boardrooms in American and Europe - may be cited.

Saddam's underwear reached the front pages at the same time as The New York Times ran a very different page one. Its investigation of the torture and killing of Afghan detainees shocked even the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. It quoted an American military coroner, Lt Col Elizabeth Rouse, on the death of one detainee whose legs had been beaten so thoroughly that they "had basically been pulpified ... I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus". Saddam's bare chest is no mean distraction from the Afghan deaths, the growth of America's Iraq prison system that now requires another $50m and, not least, the escalating war in Iraq.

[Source: By Charles Glass, The Independent, London, UK, 22May05]

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