Ramsey Clark

In some strange alternate universe, one without bombings and beheadings and troops with machine guns, Baghdad might be the ultimate retirement spot. It has palm trees and balmy weather and, once upon a time, exquisite art museums. The Tigris is apparently lovely in spring.


But not so much right now. The Baghdad of today is war-torn and bloody, and most Westerners spend their days locked in their Green Zone hotel rooms, far from the humid streets. Fortunately, Ramsey Clark, the 77-year-old legal firebrand, isn’t interested in retiring anyway.


Mr. Clark, who once served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Attorney General, is one of Saddam Hussein’s attorneys. He is defending him against charges of ordering the massacre of 148 Shiites in the Iraqi town of Dujail in 1982, after a failed assassination attempt. The trial,  a strange legal circus marked by assassinations of attorneys, weeping witnesses recalling brutal scenes of torture, and wacky monologues by a remorseless Mr. Hussein, is the first of what is expected to be many trials for crimes against humanity by the former leader. And the courtroom drama that has unfolded over the last few weeks has turned into something that is at once less and more: a catharsis for victims, a rallying point for the insurgency, a close-up of Mr. Hussein, a trial of the U.S. occupation, a political charade, a legal farce and a final face-off between the old Iraqi leader and the House of Bush. As one of the lawyers on the courtroom floor, the aging former A.G. is at the swirling center.


As far back as a year ago, Mr. Clark had already predicted that it would be “the biggest trial of this century.” Speaking with The Observer last January, not long after he first signed on to Mr. Hussein’s defense team, he laid out his reasons for taking the case of a man accused, among other crimes, of gassing Kurds and killing some 300,000 Iraqis.


“I did it because obviously these cases are extremely important in terms of history and in terms of reconciliation of peoples, and in terms of belief in truth and justice as a priority over force and violence,” he said as he sat in his 12th Street office. “So it would seem to me to be a case that carries with it the history of an epoch and time, and it will contribute to determining whether history is truth or fiction agreed upon or established by power. It also will determine how people will see the purpose of power.”


In his press statements and interviews about the trial, Mr. Clark has continued to hammer at this theme, though he has also added a litany of accusations about how the trial is failing to live up to this promise. From time to time, he has added his own unusual take on Mr. Hussein.


“He’s a person that’s very much at peace when you meet with him,” he told Katie Couric during a recent interview on NBC’s Today. “When the judge says, ‘Look, if you’ll come back in the courtroom, we’ll give you a radio, we’ll give you a box full of clothes’—two things he would like to have—he says, ‘That’s a cheap bribe. Nonsense. I do what I think is right.’ I respect that.”


The trial is now on hold until this week’s elections for the new Iraqi Parliament have been completed. The judge has called for it to resume on Dec. 21, but after Mr. Hussein’s disappearing act last week—after he walked out of the proceedings with a pithy “Go to hell!”—the trial’s future is uncertain.


In the meantime, Mr. Clark has returned to New York to work on other cases and represent other clients. No doubt some of them are controversial. His past clients—from Slobodan Milosevic to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi—have often earned him the title “traitor” and “devil’s advocate.” But those who have criticized him should also find some solace in the evenhandedness with which he applies his legal philosophy.


“If I thought the circumstances made it important, I certainly would represent George Bush,” he had said in his office that day. “I mean, I think if George Bush were indicted, he could have all the famous high-priced lawyers in the country. But should he be represented? Absolutely. And should it be the most effective representation there is? Absolutely. You don’t want a decision like that to go off for failure to find and present the truth.” Ramsey Clark