PRESIDENT Bush has said that he wants the nature of the trial of Saddam Hussein to be “a matter for the Iraqi people”; he has not said how their wishes will be made known in the absence of any structure for them to express their opinions. Of one thing we can be quite sure, however - that the interest of the United States in the conduct of the trial will be paramount. There are several reasons why Washington will be anxious to keep a tight hold on what charges Saddam faces and the latitude he will have in presenting his defence. Foremost among these is the strong likelihood that the Iraqi President will want to expose the extent to which he received American support in the 1980s when Iraq was using chemical weapons almost daily aganst Iran and Kurdish rebels.

It is well known that Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, visited Baghdad on behalf of the Reagan administration in 1983 when the Iraq-Iran war was at its height, although the precise nature of his mission has never been determined. Now de-classified documents released by the National Security Archive show that Mr Rumsfeld's task was to deliver a message that Iraq should regard America's public condemnation of its use of chemical weapons against Iran as “strictly a matter of principle” and that the US's priority was to prevent an Iranian victory in the war. A briefing document prepared by the State Department for Mr Rumsfeld's mission emphasized America's interest in “preventing an Iranian victory and continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq”.

Saddam Hussein will not lose the opportunity to demonstrate how what America condoned in the 1980s became the reason for deposing him in 2003.