There can be little doubt that Washington hoped Saddam Hussein would be killed during their Iraq invasion. During the massive preliminary aerial bombardment, a Stealth bomber deliberately targeted a restaurant where it was believed the Iraqi dictator was eating. However when Saddam was pulled from an underground bolt hole near Tikrit, it became inevitable that the Iraqi leader would face his day in court and that he would use that platform to strike back at his enemies.

His trial in Baghdad cannot be easy listening for the White House. The connection has not been established, but it seems possible that last week’s admission by President Bush -that almost all the intelligence justifying the invasion was wrong - may have been an attempt to short-circuit Saddam's protests that he was overthrown on the basis of a lie. In the event, yesterday the fallen dictator cleverly protested that he had been tortured and beaten by the Americans, and dismissed their denials as being as much a lie their pre-invasion intelligence. It really doesn't matter that Saddam is a ruthless politician who didn't hesitate to commit the most terrible crimes against his fellow countrymen, Iranians and Kuwaitis. The fact of the matter is that his charges about his own abuse bear consideration, simply because the Americans have been so economical with the truth throughout their Iraqi involvement.

The scandal of Abu Ghraib, the CIA's flights of “extreme rendition.” the gulag at Guantanamo Bay and the torrent of falsehoods that underpinned the attack on Iraq have cost Washington a great deal of credibility. It really doesn't matter that the U.S. acted to prosecute the perpetrators and fired the female general in charge of Abu Ghraib once the abuse of Iraqi detainees became known. This behavior should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Indeed, it might not have, had decent minds in Washington thought through the challenge of bringing peace and stability to postwar Iraq.

The dismantling of the police and army and the woefully inept struggle to fill the vacuum that Saddam’s ouster created demonstrate the deadly stupidity of the Bush Administration. Washington was knocked off balance the minute Iraqis failed to unconditionally welcome them as liberators. They have been stumbling ever since.

Few people doubt that Saddam, as a fearsome dictator, was directly responsible for the terror under which his country was operated. But the man’s trial might have been cathartic for all Iraqis, by tabulating the horrors of his Baathist thugs and thus could have brought closure for a deeply violated society.

That, however, is not what is happening. Saddam has recovered his composure and is turning the legal process into his last hurrah, and the Americans have handed him all the ammunition with which to do this. Instead of being allowed to concentrate on the terrible charges against him and his co-defendants, the court is in danger of being turned into a circus in which Saddam rehashes the origins of the war.