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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad and his later capture at the bottom of a spider hole near Tikrit, millions of Iraqis have been waiting to see the former president face charges. On Wednesday, they get their chance. The trial of Saddam Hussein marks a watershed moment for Iraq and for the Middle East. An Arab dictator will be tried by his own people. The first case before the Iraqi Special Tribunal dates back to 1982, when gunmen opened fire on a convoy carrying Saddam as it rolled through the Shiite town of Dujail north of Baghdad. According to the charges, Saddam's revenge included the execution of more than 140 people, the imprisonment of many more and the destruction of much of the town. We know that this is planned to be the first of several trials for crimes against humanity, though we don't know how many. Some human rights organizations question the independence and the standards of the court, whether these proceedings will be fair or represent victors' justice. Today we'll talk with an international law expert about the inner workings of the trial. We'll hear about some of the evidence and we'll talk with a former member of Saddam's defense team.

If you have questions about the charges, the evidence and the procedures or about postwar justice system in Iraq, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK, and our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

But first, the results of Saturday's constitutional referendum in Iraq and its political importance. And we begin by turning to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. And he joins us from their studios here in Washington, DC.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Director, Middle East Program, The Center for Strategic and International Studies): Good to be with you again. Thank you.

CONAN: We're told of a very high turnout thus far, and though indications--there's no official results yet, indications are unofficially that the referendum has passed. What does that mean?

Mr. ALTERMAN: Well, it's not clear what it means. It certainly means that we're moving towards elections on December 15th, but one of the things that I found distressing about the early results that I've seen from the voting is the extent to which some places in Iraq had 95 percent or more of the people voting for; other places seemed to have 95 percent or more voting against. It feels very much like you don't have a sort of muddy middle of people who are ready to compromise. It seems like Iraq may be moving even further toward polarization as it gets to really implementing this constitution.

CONAN: We're trying to get through to Baghdad to check, but we do know that late today, the Independent Electoral Commission there did say that they are going to be re-checking some of these numbers, which do seem a little unusual to them as well. Though perhaps that result of, I guess, one of the early returns was from Fallujah, the city that was the focus of a couple of different military campaigns, 99 percent of the people there voting no. Perhaps that's not so unusual.

Mr. ALTERMAN: I mean, the important thing is that everybody in Iraq feels that the electoral process can work for them and that the electoral process can protect their interests. I think one of the really dangerous conclusions that people could draw, certainly in the Sunni community, is that there's no hope through the electoral process, that they boycotted the elections in January. That didn't work out very well. They participated in the elections in October. That may not be meeting their needs either, and they may say, `We're just done with this whole thing. We're going to hunker down.' Because I think a lot of people in the Sunni community look around and say, `The country that we have built is being stolen out from under us.' And it's a very dangerous thing.

CONAN: Jonathan, we'll get back to you in just a minute, but we do now want to turn to Jill Carroll, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, who joins us now on the phone from Baghdad.

Jill, can you hear me?

Ms. JILL CARROLL (Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor): I can hear you fine.

CONAN: OK. Welcome to the program. Nice to talk to you again. I did want to ask you about this report by the Independent Electoral Commission, which said now that they're going to be re-checking some of these figures that they're getting in these returns?

Ms. CARROLL: Right. They just sent out a statement to everyone, received just a few hours ago saying that they've gotten unusually high numbers, and some of the governors, at least for turnout numbers, they're going to re-check and audit all the ballots that they've gotten so far to make sure that they're all OK. They didn't specify what the problem was exactly or where these problems were--happened, but apparently there's sort of an unusually high turnout in some areas, and they want to recheck that.

CONAN: We do know that from some Sunni politicians--they may have an ax to grind in this, but they are saying they saw evidence of, in some areas, Shias from other provinces coming in to vote to boost up the yes vote in some areas.

Ms. CARROLL: Right. Well, I mean, we've seen them say this now. They said before the referendum they were highly suspicious of getting a fair vote here. They were really suspicious that American officials or Shiites or Iran even would somehow fix the results to ensure that this thing would pass. So even if--and the other part of this is that many Sunnis really believe that they are at least half the population here, so anything indicating less than that kind of turnout, they'll probably take it as a sign of some sort of corruption or something going on.

CONAN: One of the returns that is apparently being questioned is in the province of Diyala, for example, which is believed to have a slight Sunni Arab majority. Reports from electoral officials there on Sunday reported 70 percent yes, 20 percent no.

Ms. CARROLL: Yeah, that is a remarkably high turnout, and there was sort of a surprising result. We haven't seen any final official numbers from the IECI, who's the overarching authority on this issue, and it's hard to judge sometimes, in it's only--we don't know if all the balloting, all the polling places are reporting. We haven't seen sort of official audits of these numbers. It's hard to judge, you know, the veracity of some of these numbers.

CONAN: But we do have pretty firm results, at least suggesting that in two provinces, Anbar, which is Ramadi and Fallujah out in the western part of Iraq, places where a lot of military action has been going on, and Ninawa, up around Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, that they voted no in very large numbers.

Ms. CARROLL: Right. I think that's actually not a big surprise. I mean, there was a big campaign to try to mobilize Sunnis to get out and say no. And Sunnis by themselves just felt this government hasn't served them well, and whether or not the constitution--if they were even aware of any provisions, they just wanted to come out and say no as a way of protesting against the past 10 months, and they felt they've been really marginalized. Again, we have to wait for the final numbers to know what the real turnout was.

CONAN: And I gather that not only this recount and questions about the recount--that's slowing things down but also a sandstorm.

Ms. CARROLL: Yeah. We had a huge sandstorm blow in this morning that's hampered air travel all across the country, and governors need to mail--a lot of them need to mail their ballots into the main headquarters here. They began counting this morning at headquarters here in the Green Zone, but of course, a lot of the ballots haven't arrived yet because of the sandstorm, which is still going on.

CONAN: After the first election in Iraq last January, we saw an awful lot of people holding up that purple dyed finger, indicating that they had voted, with great pride. Did we see scenes like that again?

Ms. CARROLL: Well, not really. I mean, a little bit in the southern areas that are dominated by Shias, of course, in support the constitution, a little bit in the north, where the Kurds are, of course, in support the constitution. But even in those areas, according to at least my colleagues that were there and from what I view here in Baghdad, it just wasn't the same euphoria. I mean, even where I was, in a Sunni neighborhood, of course, it was a real solemn, sort of angry attitude on the referendum day, but the day after and now, even today, everything's kind of gone back to normal whereas back in January, people were still celebrating. It's just a different feeling. I think people are disappointed in the government, disappointed in what's happened in the past 10 months. They haven't seen an improvement on the ground in security, electricity, water supplies. And the sense of sort of, even among Shias and Kurds, that their own government hasn't served them well, I think dampened a lot of spirits.

CONAN: And the other question that I guess is uppermost--and, Jonathan Alterman, I want to bring you in on this--is the question about whether this democratic process, this participation, all this voting can help restore faith in the process and sap support for the insurgency, and well, I guess, Jill Carroll, it's much too early to tell.

Ms. CARROLL: You're asking me that question, sorry?

CONAN: Is this process going to be seen to remove some of the energy from the insurgency? And the suspicion, I guess, is that it's too early to tell.

Ms. CARROLL: It's too early to tell, but also--well, maybe not, though. I mean, one of the things that we've sort of considered as maybe one of the worst outcomes could be that it be approved over a strong Sunni objection. While Sunnis can now participate, they still have yet to see themselves as stakeholders, and if participation doesn't equal a real say in a government, a real piece of the power, then I think we're going to see that they feel they don't have a reason to participate in a stable government, and they might decide that they still have more reason to support, you know, violent insurgency than the political process.

CONAN: And, Jon Alterman, that same question to you, and of course, this is critical for American officials.

Mr. ALTERMAN: It is. You know, one of the remarkable things is that nobody's got a very good record to run on after Iraqis have been in some ways running their country for a couple of years. The Dawa Party under the prime minister has not performed well. It seems to be--its lack of performance is weakening the Shia coalition. Nobody really has a success story to point to. Nobody seems to be running on a platform. And one of the frightening things is that in a single-constituency government, where nobody really has a platform, you're just voting on ethnic blocs and ethnic minorities, it begins to look a lot more like Lebanon and all of the dysfunction that we've seen in Lebanon for the last half-century, rather than looking like a country that's emerging into democracy.

CONAN: And if we presume for a moment that the constitution did pass in the referendum, the organization for these legislative elections coming up on December 15th, that would presumably be along the same largely ethnic and sectarian lines.

Mr. ALTERMAN: That's right. And one of the interesting things that we haven't yet seen is anybody emerge as a leader of the Sunni political community, and that certainly will be one of the most fascinating things to watch over the coming months, whether the Sunnis decide to participate, how they participate and how, when you get to the smoky back-room deals when people are actually allocating power after the election, how the Sunnis do, whether they're dealt into the process or whether they feel like they're being shut out.

CONAN: And, of course, there is a provision now for the constitution to be reopened to accommodate some of those Sunni concerns.

Mr. ALTERMAN: Although it doesn't get reopened until four months after the legislature actually begins its work. Now what we saw the last time, after the January elections, is it took about three months to work out what the legislature would do and how it would be set up and who would be in the leadership and who and what coalition. So we may not see until mid- or late spring them actually getting to the point of revisiting all the questions that they need to on the amendment process. Even so, there are 34 provisions in this constitution that say they will be determined by law, which means that what they actually mean, how you actually implement them, hasn't been worked out yet.

CONAN: And, Jill Carroll, we just have 30 seconds to ask you if there is much interest, as far as you've been able to detect in Baghdad, in the upcoming trial of Saddam Hussein, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

Ms. CARROLL: It's something people aren't really talking about that much. I think they aren't really even aware it's happening, because there's been so much confusion so far as to how it would work, whether it will be televised, whether--how it will be publicized. I think we'll have to see, maybe Wednesday and Thursday after it begins, how people will react. But it is sort of a cathartic moment, I think, or it will be for a lot of people here, especially Shiites and Kurds, and it's the thing that we probably will see them probably react to. Whether it will make Sunnis more angry, we don't know, but I think it's something Shias and Kurds really are anxious to see.

CONAN: Jill Carroll of The Christian Science Monitor, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Ms. CARROLL: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Jon Alterman, director of the director of the Middle East program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, we thank you for your time as well.

Mr. ALTERMAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll focus on the trial of Saddam Hussein. (800) 989-8255. This is NPR News.

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