NO LESS SURREAL than the details of Saddam Hussein's hideaway--the copy of "Crime and Punishment," the Catholic image headed "God Bless Our Home," the can of 7-Up--were the photographs of reporters crawling all over the compound, inspecting it minutely, and even personally trying out the "spider hole." Whatever else it may prove to be, be the capture of Saddam is already a triumph of openness.

Let the same be said of his eventual trial. The president's pledge is encouraging: The trial will be Iraqi, it will "withstand international scrutiny," and it will be public. "Yes, definitely," said Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi, "the trial will be public."

The old Iraq was a place where reporters couldn't stir without official "minders," and ordinary people were afraid to talk about politics even with their neighbors. Saddam's trial, a foundational event in free Iraq, must meticulously air the evidence of his regime's atrocities, for the sake of the survivors, and for the sake of the young generation of Iraqis who will build the new nation. The truth must be told, and must be seen to be told. Says Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Rend Rahim Francke, "The Iraqis need to see justice being done in front of them. This is going to be truly a process of healing."

As for the watching world, it is to be hoped that the dwindling club of dictators will take special note. In particular, those autocracies that have been fertile incubators of extremism should be given ringside seats at the trail. Let Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Iran and the Palestinian Authority send official observers to Saddam's trial. And let Al Jazeera cover the proceedings gavel to gavel. Even the agents of governments like these will find a scrupulous search for the truth an impressive thing.

Indeed, this may be a teachable moment in some hitherto unreceptive quarters. Browsing in the Arab press on the web, I am especially struck by one remarkable item from Al-Quds al-Arabi, an independent Arab-nationalist daily in London of anti-Saudi, anti-U.S. bent sympathetic to al Qaeda. It encapsulates the challenge presented, to those who would transform the Middle East, by the decadent state of Arab political discourse.

In the space of three short paragraphs, the writer--editor in chief Abd-al-Bari Atwan--goes from the grossest conspiracy theory about the Americans' "staged" capture of Saddam to a disarming admission that none other than "democracy, equality, transparency, and an independent justice system" are prerequisites for a restoration of Arab dignity. Here is the passage (dated December 15):

We realize that the Iraqi president's appearance--with matted hair and ragged clothes--was extremely humiliating because no one expected him to be captured alive and without resistance, hiding in a small, filthy hole. More than likely, it was staged as a carefully crafted operation to mislead people. We have only heard the American story, more accurately, what the American military wanted us to hear. We will need more time for the dust to settle and for some parts of the real picture to emerge.

The capture of Saddam Hussein could be a blessing for many Iraqis, especially those who suffered as a result of his injustice and oppression. But it could come back to haunt the Americans invaders. The Iraqis, and especially those who have collaborated with the occupation, are greatly distressed. Some of them have justified their silence, and even their collaboration, saying that they feared Saddam Hussein's return to power. How will they justify themselves now?

These are momentous events, perhaps the most important days in the history of the Arab and Muslim community. They hold important lessons. We must learn these lessons if we truly desire a better future. First and foremost among these lessons is that justice, democracy, equality, transparency, and an independent justice system are the basic prerequisites for any real movement toward progress and the restoration of the community's dignity.

Inside Iraq, they already have the hang of openness. To end on a bright note, read the editorial from the leading independent Iraqi daily, Al-Zaman. It's entitled: The Fall of Saddam is Complete and the Sun has Returned to Shine on Iraq.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard

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