As American and British forces consolidate control over most of Iraq and find civilians to help them rule, they face the challenge of preventing or halting revenge killings, looting, and other criminal acts. They need to move quickly to switch from fighting to policing streets and setting up a temporary system of justice.
Criminal behavior is already spreading in several locations where Saddam Hussein's forces have been defeated. The situation in Baghdad is deteriorating as the regime collapses.
Although they are loath to do so, coalition forces must establish martial law in the short term if they are to stabilize the situation. Some night patrols have already begun; much more than that will be needed to end the chaos.
Without law and order, aid organizations cannot deliver relief supplies to hungry and sick people. People cannot lead normal lives. Democracy cannot take root. The continuing violence in Afghanistan, where the US has unwisely resisted steps to provide international peacekeeping forces outside Kabul, provides a cautionary lesson.
In Iraq, the brutality and politicization of the police force and judges under Hussein complicate the picture. None of these people, many of whom are guilty of torture and other crimes against humanity, should be a part of a new criminal-justice system.
An international civilian police force may be needed to help keep order until the creation of a functioning Iraqi force that its citizenry can trust. International jurists should also be brought in to train qualified Iraqi lawyers as quickly as possible to act as judges. United Nations experience in setting up judicial systems can be helpful here. All ethnic and religious groups must be represented in both the police and judiciary, in their respective regions and at the national level.
The Defense and State departments now propose US trials for Iraqis accused of war crimes against United States personnel in this conflict and the 1991 Gulf War. They also plan to have new Iraqi courts try Hussein regime leaders and others for crimes committed against Iraqis.
Both would be a mistake. War crimes are a violation of international law and should be so treated. Iraq's new legal system won't be able to handle such matters for some time. An international court, like that to try war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, should be quickly created to cover war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Iraq, during the Iran-Iraq war, and in Kuwait.
In the end, however, the Iraqi people themselves must embrace, and require that their leaders implement, international criminal-justice norms. That would create more fertile soil in which democracy could better take root.