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Saddam Footage Shatters His Strong Image

December 16, 2003

Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s limp body hung upside down in a Milan square. Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu lay crumpled near his dead wife moments after facing a firing squad.

A dictator’s downfall rarely makes a pretty picture. Rarer still were the highly unusual images of Saddam Hussein in captivity: This toppled tyrant is alive and bedraggled for the world to see.

More often, dictators have either faced the barrel of a gun or no form of justice at all.

Adolf Hitler committed suicide as Soviet forces advanced, and his body was burned in a garden above his bunker. He thus avoided the Nuremberg trials that sent 10 of his henchmen to the gallows.

Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, died at home of a stroke while still in office. Uganda’s Idi Amin was ousted from power, but took comfortable refuge in Saudi Arabia until his death this year.

Many ex-dictators and their supporters could cling to images of the ``good times,″ leaving victims little solace.

This time things may be different.

Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, says the footage of Saddam served a crucial purpose: shattering his image.

``Whatever godlike aura Saddam had has been pretty punctured by the images of him bedraggled, and some American doctor checking him for lice and poking around in his mouth,″ Bass said. ``Doesn’t get much more humiliating than that.″

These images will resonate strongly in Iraq, said Mideast human rights expert Mahmood Monshipouri of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

``They saw him in the TV footage as a man who was somewhat disoriented, very subdued and submissive rather than somebody who was putting up a fight,″ he said. ``He could have killed himself as a matter of honor, not to be in the hands of the American soldiers.

``The images that were projected yesterday had tremendous impact.″

Bass, who wrote ``Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals,″ saw another crucial message in the pictures of Saddam _ that his captors had spared his life.

``This is not the way that most Iraqi leaders leave office,″ he said.

One deposed Iraqi tyrant of 30 years ago appeared in an eerily similar image _ mustachioed, bushy-browed and seated upright as a guard held his head up by the hair. There was one difference: Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem was dead.

The treatment of Saddam, Bass said, is ``a remarkable act of restraint, and a political demonstration that democracies work differently than dictatorships.″

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch in New York sees a ``radical change″ in the way ex-tyrants have been treated in the past decade, with an increasing possibility of trial.

``For the first time in history, we’re getting to the point where someone who commits crimes against humanity has a real chance of being prosecuted,″ he said.

Yet Saddam’s trial may also offer him a grandstand. Toppled Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who is facing a war crimes trial in The Hague, has used the proceedings to deliver blustering speeches.

``Think of Saddam Hussein in front of any tribunal,″ said journalist Riccardo Orizio, author of ``Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators.″

``The possibility of a trial is a wonderful possibility for any deposed former dictator to put shame on his enemies.″

However Saddam comes off in court, he is unlikely to express regret. Orizio’s book of interviews showed a series of toppled tyrants who consistently articulated sorrow only for themselves.

So, Saddam’s image may be shattered for now, but do not expect him to appear humble in court.

The ex-dictator, typically, ``doesn’t have any indications of remorse,″ Orizio said. ``He feels his actions have been entirely justified.″

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