Iraqis are about to embark on two landmark events that will say a lot about the future of their country.
This weekend they vote on a constitution and the importance of this milestone to the future of a democratic Iraq cannot be overestimated.
Next week, another milestone will be reached when Saddam Hussein goes on trial on charges that include crimes against humanity.
No, the former dictator who ruled Iraq with a ruthless hand for more than two decades will not be tried by a jury of his peers but rather by a panel of judges.
Saddam and seven others will face an Iraqi court created to try the former Iraqi leader and his associates. The Iraqi Special Tribunal was established to hear well-recognized international crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In addition, the IST can hear evidence in cases related to Iraqi law such as interference with the judiciary, wasting national wealth and waging aggressive war against an Arab country.
Iraq chose to set up its own war crimes tribunal rather than follow the example of former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, which used international courts, lawyers and judges to try alleged war criminals. This and other trials in Iraq will be conducted by Iraqis.
"This is completely an Iraqi-led process," a Bush administration official said. "They will be making all rulings with and without — and to the extent they desire — international support."
Administration officials in Washington, briefing reporters in advance of the trial set to begin Oct. 19, said Iraqis have gotten advice and assistance from the international community to prepare for this case and others to follow.
American, British and Australian officials have lent expertise and paid for many of the costs. Legal scholars from several U.S. law schools have advised the Iraqi judges, and mock trials were staged in Britain to prepare for trials in Iraq. The Bush administration has spent $75 million to help pay costs related to the special tribunal.
When Saddam Hussein enters the courtroom, the proceedings will have some similarities Americans are familiar with but the differences will be greater.
Officials here say the Iraqi legal system draws more closely from Egyptian and French law, not the English common law on which America's legal system is based. Iraq's legal system is described as "inquisitorial," which is less adversarial than the American system.
A three-judge panel will hear the case and the chief judge will ask most, if not all, of the questions. Prosecution and defense lawyers can submit questions to the court but the chief judge will decide whether or not to put the questions to the defendant.
While Saddam will have legal representation, he will not sit beside them as in an American court. He'll be alone in a chair facing the three judges, and likely surrounded by a protective glass shield.
The first case to be heard by the IST is the Al Dujayl case. It's not one of the more infamous alleged crimes carried out by Saddam's regime. The case dates from events in July 1982, following an attack on Saddam's motorcade as it went through the village of Al Dujayl.
The allegations include the arrest without warrants of 550 men, women and children. Torture and extra-judicial killings allegedly followed. Since the charges include crimes against humanity, the death penalty could apply.
Prosecution of several more-well-known abuses of the regime such as the gassing of Kurds in the village of Halabja in 1988 or the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, also in 1988, are not yet ready for trial — victims seeking justice for those tragedies will have to wait a while longer.
So, too, will history's judgment of Saddam. What will come sooner are decisions on his guilt or innocence in an Iraqi court, and the manner in which justice will be dealt to the former dictator.
In the minds of his fellow citizens, not to mention the victims who survived his reign, this may be as important to Iraq's future as an up or down vote on a constitution.
Charles M. Wolfson