Justice for Saddam

Assassination is wrong, even for tyrants

Tuesday June 24, 2003
The Guardian

Saddam Hussein has now been killed three times by US forces in Iraq - unless they missed him and he is still alive. That seems to be the situation after the latest "strike" last week on a convoy of vehicles somewhere near the Syrian border. As always, it is a confused story. The Pentagon will not say whether the attack was the result of intelligence or was just launched on a hunch. It is not confirmed whether Syrian border guards were killed or wounded during the action. The convoy may or may not have included a party of smugglers. What is clear is that the US feels entitled to launch a Hellfire missile whenever it sees some unidentified vehicles heading for Syria. The message is that Ba'athists, smugglers or ordinary travellers should all beware.

What seems lost in Washington's post-strike inquiry is any scruple as to whether the US is justified in behaving this way. It is not just that, once more, innocent Iraqis may lose their lives because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that the desert is not a free-fire zone. The aim of the war, Mr Bush reiterated time and again in the run-up, was to "bring to justice" the Iraqi leader and his associates. Many Iraqi civilians in recent weeks have also raised their own demand that their former rulers should be brought to account. Of course there may be reasons why the US would find it inexpedient to put Saddam on trial - for a start he might say something about the support he enjoyed from Washington in the Iraq-Iran war. But to obliterate him with an anti-tank weapon is a policy of vengeance, not of justice.

Accepting for the sake of argument Washington's claim that the war was not illegal, the earlier "strikes" on Saddam of March 19 and April 7 could perhaps be regarded as part of the military action. That is not a reasonable claim today when the US, as an "occupying force" under the Hague and Geneva conventions, must accept much stricter constraints. (Washington rejects the definition: we prefer the judgment of Kofi Annan.)

Military resistance to the US is continuing, but this does not entitle the Pentagon - which denies that the Iraqi opposition is under central control - to kill indiscriminately. Washington's shift to the offensive against Saddam's remnants has an air of desperation, as public opinion begins to chafe at mounting casualties. Yet whether it is Saddam or smugglers, the US does not have the right to blast them from the air.

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