The conviction and sentencing of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by a special tribunal in Baghdad should be regarded as a triumph for justice and a sign of hope for Iraq, the region and the world. Iraqis have good reason to celebrate, as they did yesterday across the country, despite the curfew imposed in anticipation of the decision.
To some, the verdict and sentence may have seemed a foregone conclusion. They were not.
It would be difficult to think of another trial in which the judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors put themselves in greater personal danger than that of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, three defense attorneys were murdered and one judge quit during the year-long trial.
Saddam was convicted of ordering the killings of 148 men and boys from the town of Dujail following a failed assassination attempt against him there in 1982. Ten of those executed were boys ranging in ages from 11 to 17 at the time of the incident. The boys were held in jail until they were 18, then hanged.
Saddam is also currently on trial for killing about 100,000 Kurds, many with poison gas, in the Anfal campaign in 1987 and 1988. Though the death sentence he received triggers an automatic appeal, it is possible that Saddam will be executed before the second trial is completed.
As difficult as it is to comprehend the scope of Saddam's crimes covered by these two trials, the suffering that he imposed on the Iraqi people does not end here. International human rights groups estimate that Saddam killed almost 300,000 Iraqis during his rule. And even this astronomical figure does not include such crimes as the invasion of Kuwait and the horrible human rights abuses committed there, the 39 Scud missiles Iraq fired against Israel during the first Gulf War, and Saddam's direct funding for the families of suicide bombers who murdered Israelis.
Dictators are bullies at heart who convince themselves they will never be held personally accountable for the evil that they do. The death penalty is not to be imposed lightly. In the case of Saddam, it has not been. It serves both to underline the intolerable nature of his assault on human decency and to make plain to others - and just possibly give them pause - that there is no escape for those who follow his course.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouria al-Maliki expressed his hope that Saddam's execution would deal a blow to the terrorists who are trying to destroy the prospects for democracy. American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, claimed the verdict was "an important milestone in the building of a free society" in Iraq.
Unfortunately, however, we have seen numerous such milestones come and go: from Saddam's capture, to a series of impressive elections and the drafting of a constitution, to the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. None has brought the much-hoped-for stability and peace that would allow democracy to take hold for the first time in a major Arab country.
The tragedy is, as midterm elections are held this week in the US, that there is a growing sense in America and the world that the war for Iraqi democracy is lost. This sense may or may not be accurate when viewed in isolation, as if the war in Iraq depends only on what Iraqis and Americans do in Iraq itself. What is clear, however, is that the challenge of terrorism in Iraq, like the threats now facing Israel, cannot be viewed in isolation, and must be addressed in a regional context.
Despite feigned concern for Iraq's troubles, the radical Shi'ite regime in Iran and surrounding (mostly Sunni-led) Arab dictatorships do not want to see a flourishing democracy in Baghdad. Iran and Syria, in particular, are actively aiding the terrorists.
It is impossible to imagine over the mid- to long-term that democracy in Iraq has a chance if the radical regime in Teheran goes nuclear and the Teheran-Damascus-Hizbullah-Hamas axis becomes emboldened accordingly. The Iranian regime is using Iraq to divert attention from itself. What is more, that strategy is working.
The removal of Saddam Hussein's regime and the trial that has now convicted him for his crimes are significant advances for freedom and justice. Those advances will be for naught, however, if the West allows Iran to strengthen and lead a terrorist counter-offensive.
We are in a war that cannot be half-won.
Ultimately, if the Iranian challenge to the free world is not confronted and defeated, there is little hope for advancing peace and freedom - both here and in Iraq.