Trials take patience. Yet the trial of Saddam Hussein is straining Iraqis' patience. His courtroom histrionics appear to be making the tribunal anything but historic. But the patience of the presiding judge toward the former tyrant's outbursts may be just what's needed to help cement the rule of law in Iraq.
Mr. Hussein and seven of his deputies went on trial in October for the first of many atrocity crimes - the killing of more than 140 Shiites in 1982 in retaliation for an assassination attempt against Hussein. Last week, the trial was adjourned until Jan. 24.
Hussein has often disrupted the proceedings with accusations, harangues, and defiant gestures against the five judges and witnesses. These antics are clearly intended to delay and intimidate.
Last week, for instance, when witnesses told tales of torture or killings allegedly ordered by Hussein, he tried to divert attention by claiming he'd been tortured while in American custody since his capture in 2003. (The court judges found no evidence of torture.)
His boisterous barbs, however, have so far failed to derail the trial's course, and he knows it. At first, for instance, Hussein refused to recognize the court's jurisdiction. Later, he pleaded "not guilty" to charges. Finding no effect in his disruptions, he's exhaustedly tried new tactics or given up. By last week, he was starting to wait for permission to speak.
With his behavior largely tolerated by the court, Hussein may be forced to recognize the emptiness of his defiance. He'll find no resonance with the judge or with most Iraqis.
The presiding judge, an Iraqi Kurd named Rizgar Mohammed Amin, is no fool. A 1980 graduate of Baghdad University law school, he's an even-tempered judge with a track record for standing up to political pressure under the Hussein regime.
Before millions of Iraqis watching on TV, Mr. Amin has shown a balance between an orderly trial and the rights of the defendants, including a right for them to cross-examine witnesses. His tolerance of Hussein's antics shows a respect, politeness, and fairness that was denied Iraqis under Hussein's system of nonjustice.
Amin has rejected putting the defendants in soundproof glass cages, as critics suggest, or cutting them off from being heard in court. That might have reduced the political theater. But the contrast between the old ways and, it's hoped, the new ways of law and order is necessary for Iraqis to see during this trial - one of possibly many against Hussein.
US government officials who control the TV broadcasts of the trial, however, are less farsighted. By often cutting the signal during Hussein's statements, they reveal a bias that diminishes the image of justice.
Holding the trial in Iraq and before Iraqi judges, while not ideal, is better than trying him abroad, with the help of non-Iraqi judges. Most Iraqis assume Hussein is guilty of the charges, so their attention is focused on the process which, by being local, better reflects their sensibilities.
Iraqis have already shown their respect for democracy during three elections in 2005. With patience like that of Judge Amin's, they should also begin to respect the rule of law in a new Iraq.