A formal indictment is long overdue, though Saddam is unlikely ever to face any kind of justice unless the proposed war to unseat him does indeed take place.
Saddam's Iraq is all too often dismissed, especially by pundits opposed to the war, as a "run-of-the-mill evil dictatorship"-to quote the fatuous phrase used by Michael Kinsley in his Slate column.
It is in fact a staggeringly cruel, genuinely totalitarian regime with more in common with Enver Hoxha's ghastly Albania than with a heavy-handed autocracy like Egypt or a tinpot tyranny like Nicaragua under Somoza (or the Sandinistas).
* Nearly 200,000 people are "missing" in Iraq, most of them Kurds who vanished during the ethnic cleansing of the 1988 Anfal campaign. Compare that to the 9,000 who were disappeared by the Argentine junta or the 3,000 "desparacidos" of Pinochet's Chile. Or, for that matter, the 10,000 Albanian dead in Kosovo.
* The regime is know to have executed 4,000 Iraqis in the last four years, including 130 women beheaded for "prostitution" - three of whom were doctors who had criticized the regime's policies.
* In just one month in 1991, the regime killed 30,000 civilians during the uprisings that followed the Gulf War.
* To ensure the loyalty of the rest, Saddam has killed 20,000 members of his ruling Ba'ath party during his years in power. Total membership is 400,000: He's killed 5 percent of his closest supporters.
* Meriting his own indictment is Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed - known as "Ali Chemical" for his use of poison gas in the 1988 genocidal campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq.
Yet many people let their antipathy towards President Bush afflicts them with a moral blindness when it comes to Saddam's regime. People who were rightly horrified by the Argentine junta's atrocities or Slobodan Milosevic's murderous aggression in the former Yugoslavia are remarkably sanguine about worse repression on a vaster scale in Saddam's Iraq.
They are all too willing to take Saddam's gestures, like his recent prison amnesty, at face value. Yet he did not free most of his political prisoners - and there are still large numbers despite the thousands of executions carried out in "prison cleanups" by Saddam's son Qusay in the late '90s.
The notorious Al Radwaniya jail, grim home to thousands of Shiites arrested after the 1991 uprisings, apparently did not open its doors. According to the International Alliance for Justice (Web site:
www.i-a-j.org), there are more than 300 detention centers in Iraq, many of which are secret ones where torture and murder are practiced on a wide scale. But the cameras were invited only to one, Bagdhad's Abu Ghraib.
On the other hand, the fact that the amnesty took place at all may be a positive sign. It does not herald Iraqi glasnost, but it may mean that the regime is rattled by President Bush's aggressive rhetoric. Clearly, there are Iraqis who see it that way - among them the newly released inmates of the Abu Ghraib prison who jubilantly shouted praise of Bush to foreign reporters.
If they are right, then those in the West who are appalled by Bush's bellicose rhetoric as dangerous, counterproductive etc., are dead wrong. Certainly the point of view of these men - and the open anguish of those Iraqis whose sons, husbands and brothers are still missing after the amnesty - ought to be at the center of the debate about the war.
It's true that in recent years American governments have cared little and done less about Saddam's ghastly regime. Yet to dismiss or play down the Stalinesque conditions that prevail in Iraq because it is George W. Bush pushing war - or because his father mistakenly kept the regime alive, or because George W. may have impure motives - is morally insane.