The decision of the Iraqi war crimes tribunal to sentence Tariq Aziz to death is one that needs to be vigorously opposed for several reasons. Although it is true that, as Saddam Hussein's longtime henchman and deputy, he is morally tainted with some of the most appalling crimes in modern history, Aziz was not, in fact, condemned to execution for his part in the annexation of Kuwait, the destruction of the Marsh Arabs, or the attempted genocide against Iraq's Kurdish minority. (Indeed, there is some evidence that he advised his boss against the insane attack on Kuwait in 1990.) For his relatively minor role in those and other events, he has in any case already been sentenced to terms of imprisonment that would keep him in jail until he died—old and infirm as he now is—of natural causes. No, Aziz has been ordered to hang because of his long-ago role in repressing the Dawa movement, a Shiite religious faction with ties to Iran, which under the Baathist dictatorship conducted armed resistance and which is now a political party. Its leader, Nuri al-Maliki, is currently—or should one say nominally?—the prime minister of Iraq.
The decision to put Tariq Aziz to death is almost the only sign of "life" to have emerged from Iraqi official circles since the elections of March 7 this year. It seems only to confirm that Maliki looks at politics through the cold eyes of a habitual religious sectarian.
I received a letter from some comrades in Baghdad this week, as exactly eight months elapsed since the voters last went to the polls. The Iraqi political class, they wrote, had achieved the apparently impossible by making Asif Ali Zardari's regime in Pakistan look like a model of pluralism and good government. But in spite of all this, they said, the Iraqi people were enduring and had not soured on the idea of democracy.
On the morning that I received that note, the Washington Post carried a brief and heart-breaking report. It described a lawsuit, brought to the Baghdad District Court by a coalition of "civil society and human rights organizations." The suit demanded that elected Iraqi parliamentarians give back the salaries they have so far earned, and forego future payments, until they have overcome the paralyzing torpor that has deprived the country of the fruits of its hard-won right to vote. A short while ago, the same alliance of forces convinced the nation's Supreme Court to order the lawmakers to resume their negotiations.
I still have a tendency to rub my eyes when I read about this sort of thing, rather as I do when I read of Tariq Aziz's lawyers readying their appeal and meanwhile complaining about the prison conditions in which their client is being held. Citizens' groups approaching the courts; petitions about the seating of members of parliament; radio and TV networks disputing the issues and the outcome; millions of Iraqis joining the argument by way of cellphones and the Internet; Sunni and Shiite and secular parties competing for the allegiance of the Kurdish bloc in the assembly. … Do people understand the night-and-day difference that this involves?
When I first visited Iraq under Saddam Hussein, it was illegal to import a typewriter into the country. When I next visited, the Kurdish area of the country was a smoldering wilderness that had been cleansed by mass deportation and expulsion and seared by chemical weapons. Those who complained, or who were suspected of thinking of complaining, did not get to enjoy a day in court, or have their say on a call-in show. Instead, they vanished into the dreaded precincts of the Abu Ghraib prison or into one of the mass graves that are still being uncovered across the landscape. Today there is still censorship and rough handling of reporters, but it would be near-impossible to reduce Iraqis to the cowed and silent condition in which they used to have to live.
There are still immense dangers facing any Iraqi who wants to express a democratic or nonsectarian opinion, but these dangers do not come so much from the state. They come from the prowling, sleepless murder-gangs who, almost every day, find ways of killing civilians either selectively or en masse. By some kind of convention, we still agree to refer to these people as insurgents. (In the recently fizzled debate over WikiLeaks, the hideous casualties the "insurgents" inflict were also described semi-neutrally in the press as coming from "other Iraqis," though witnesses to the recent massacre of a Baghdad Christian congregation spoke of hearing foreign Arab accents among the assassins.) But in what possible sense can such actions be described as a rebellion or an insurgency, especially in a society that now offers its citizens at least some of the means of lawful dissent and redress?
This is the aspect of our intervention that is unquantifiable. As with Afghanistan, we cannot know the long-term effect of promulgating a federal constitution, holding elections, opening clinics and schools for women, and attempting to protect the rights of minorities. And the Afghan and Iraqi governments are such wretched simulacra of the principles they are supposed to embody that results are even harder to gauge. The principles may even be discredited by association with corruption. Still, we have to remain on the side of those Iraqis and Afghans who fight against such desperate odds to make these principles real and to carry them into the future.
At least we can say with certainty that the proposed execution of Tariq Aziz, like the awful circus that accompanied the hanging of Saddam Hussein, cannot play any role in the upholding of a new model of society. As well as being part of a religious vendetta, his death would have too much in common with past bloody "transitions" from one Iraqi regime to another. Aziz was until not long ago a surrendered prisoner in U.S. custody, which makes it all the more important that Americans make themselves heard on this question.