When will Saddam Hussein go on trial and what are the charges?

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

Open your datebooks and draw a little smiley face on Oct. 19. It's gonna be a great day.

Not only is it the day that London's Royal College of Ophthalmologists will hold its inflammatory eye disease seminar (Dr. Peggy Frith's 2:30 p.m. lecture on herpetic intraocular inflammation is surely ocular medicine's can't-miss herpetic event of the season!), but Oct. 19 is also the day Saddam Hussein is scheduled to go on trial in front of the Iraqi Special Tribunal.

Saddam's rap sheet is long. In 1988, he unleashed an ethnic cleansing campaign on the Kurds in northern Iraq. International human rights groups estimate that more than 180,000 Kurds were killed.

After Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam crushed a Shi'ite Arab uprising in southern Iraq, killing tens of thousands of people and, in the process, systematically destroying the river marshes that southern Iraq's inhabitants had farmed for thousands of years.

During his rule, Saddam's vicious police state murdered tens of thousands of Iraqis, punishing people for their disloyalty (real or imagined), but also just for sadistic fun.

Oh, and let's not forget that Saddam started two wars. He invaded Iran in 1980, starting an eight-year border war that left more than 1 million people dead, many from Saddam's chemical weapons. As if to underscore the horrific wastefulness of the war, it ended in a draw.

In 1990, of course, Saddam invaded Iraq's neighbor Kuwait, provoking the conflict we know as the first Gulf War and providing much-needed career boosts for two of America's favorite weird-beards, Lee Greenwood and Wolf Blitzer.

But oddly enough, Saddam isn't going on trial for any of those things. Instead, he and a handful of his faithful goons will be tried for killing about 150 people in the Iraqi town Dujail.

In 1982, Saddam's motorcade was ambushed as it passed through the largely Shi'ite town. Saddam was unhurt, but he was trapped for hours before being taken to safety.

To retaliate for the ambush, Saddam did what any evil dictator would do in that situation: He ordered the killing of about 150 people from Dujail, imprisoned hundreds of families from Dujail, and had his henchmen raze the town.

Reprehensible, indeed, but why is the Iraqi Special Tribunal bringing Saddam to trial for Dujail, instead of, say, the Kurdish ethnic campaign that did the same thing to countless villages and 1,000 times as many people?

According to anonymous sources speaking on behalf of the tribunal, the answer is that the Dujail massacre was relatively well-documented and thus should be easy to prove in court. That the Iraqi Special Tribunal is largely Shi'ite, like the victims of Dujail, might just be coincidence.

Saddam's defense team, led by his daughter Raghad (she's not a lawyer, she's just bossing the team of lawyers around — like father, like daughter, I guess) has another explanation. The team suggests that a quick trial focusing on Dujail would serve two important political purposes.

First, it would satisfy the desire of Iraq's new leaders to dispose of Saddam quickly. If Saddam is convicted of the Dujail massacre, he can be executed immediately.

Secondly, a trial for the Dujail massacre is likely to result in a death sentence for Saddam without there ever being a public discussion of the U.S.'s long support for regime change. Put Saddam on trial for using chemical weapons against Iran, and someone's bound to mention that the United States actively supported him during that conflict, funneling him cash and dispatching the U.S. Navy to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran's navy in check. Put Saddam on trial for using chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds, and it's likely that someone (other than me) is gonna start talking about the fact that not only did the United States know of the attacks and approve of them, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld actually met with Saddam in 1983 on behalf of the Reagan administration. Rumsfeld told Saddam that we didn't mind who he killed or how, as long as he beat Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.

If you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go be creeped out by the fact that Saddam's lawyers actually have articulated a more thoughtful analysis of Saddam's trial than the Iraqi government, the U.S. government, or the mainstream American press.