On October 19, 2005, Iraqis sat spellbound as the curtains of the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT) opened and the trial of Saddam Hussein and his seven codefendants began. The former president radiated condescension, the trial judge looked nervous, and the prosecutor attempted to deliver an oratorical indictment of the former Ba'ath regime. Less than two years had passed since the dictator's fall. The momentum to bring him and others to trial had been relentless. Some fifteen months later, Hussein was hanged in the predawn hours of a cold winter's morning, taunted by his black-masked executioners. The sectarian inflection of the execution was inescapable. Preserved by an illicit video recording, it undid in minutes what others had labored years to achieve.
The distance between the tribunal courtroom and the execution cell was never far. Hussein's trial was a lost opportunity, haunted by the question of what might have been. With millions of victims, ample funding, custody of the main defendants, and prolific documentation and potential evidence, Hussein's prosecution could have been a shining example of how to use law to come to terms with a violent past – and could have contributed significantly to a new Iraqi legal and political order.
The Dujail trial did not fulfill these lofty goals, however, at least in the short term. The IHT's legal process was first compromised and then overwhelmed by the political quest for revenge.