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Born under a cloud of irony

The ironies are flowing thicker than crude oil in Iraq these days.

First, the United States surreptitiously turns over nominal control of the country to a government appointed by outsiders -- while leaving real power in the hands of U.S. military commanders -- and calls it an exercise in democracy.

And although the interim prime minister is a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, who later conducted anti-Hussein terrorist operations on behalf of the CIA -- operations in which innocent Iraqi civilians may have been killed -- his anointment as leader of a "free Iraq" is being hailed by President Bush as a great victory in the war on terror.

According to several former intelligence officials interviewed by the New York Times this month, the political group run by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the 1990s, but financed by the CIA, "used car bombs and other explosive devices smuggled into Iraq" in an attempt to sabotage and destabilize Hussein's regime.

With such a record, it is perhaps not strange then that Allawi, who built his exile organization with defecting Iraqi military officers, is already proclaiming the need to delay elections scheduled for January and impose martial law. On Monday, Bush said coalition forces would support such a call for martial law, presumably enforced by U.S. troops.

Allawi is also demanding that Hussein be put under his government's control and tried quickly by an Iraqi court -- probably a strategic move to seize Hussein's strongman crown directly.

When Allawi was first picked for the prime minister post through an opaque selection process ostensibly run by a U.N. representative, former CIA Iran-Iraq analyst Kenneth Pollack justified the agency's earlier use of Allawi as a terrorist with the comment, "Send a thief to catch a thief." But the question now is: Do you send a thief to build a democracy?

There has been little media follow-up to reports in early June that Allawi's work for the CIA amounted to much more than trying to win hearts and minds. Yet, what we do know is damning enough. In 1996, one of Allawi's top officers and his group's self-proclaimed chief bomb maker detailed the mechanics behind Allawi's murderous actions in a videotape subsequently obtained by a British newspaper, the Independent. On the tape, he even expresses annoyance that the CIA had shortchanged him on one job, a car bombing, allegedly paying only half the agreed-upon amount.

According to one of the New York Times' sources, Allawi's group, the Iraqi National Accord, was the only exile group the CIA trusted to unleash violence inside Iraq under the agency's direction. In those days, car bombings in Baghdad were thought to be a good thing, according to one U.S. intelligence officer who worked with Allawi. "No one had any problem with sabotage in Baghdad back then," he said, adding, "I don't think anyone could have known how things could turn out today." Now, Allawi has made control over his old rival Hussein a loud demand of his appointed government, which sits in uneasy reliance on 135,000 U.S. troops and must answer to the world's largest American embassy in all important matters.

Such a plan must be tempting for the United States. A show trial under Allawi would be designed to get Hussein out of the way as quickly and quietly as possible, which might save the United States some embarrassment. After all, in an open, unbiased trial, the old dictator, if he still has his wits about him, could talk about his cooperation with the Reagan and Bush administrations during the 1980s, when he committed many of the alleged crimes -- including the use of poison gas -- for which he will be brought to trial. He might even discuss his two visits back then with Donald H. Rumsfeld.

But even though a fair public trial might prove uncomfortable for our government, Hussein is a prisoner of war captured by the United States, and Washington is responsible for his treatment under international standards. We have no right to turn him over to the tender mercies of a former CIA-financed archrival. That is simply an abdication of responsibility that violates international law.

There is no good argument for not trying Hussein under international law, as has been done with former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. A fair public trial would reveal the crimes of Hussein as well as the machinations of those U.S. officials and agencies that aided him.

Robert Scheer is the co-author of The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.

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