Race for order in Iraq
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y.
As an attorney in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Moniem al-Khatib says he practiced law in a lawless land subject to a dictator's whim. He arrived in court each day unsure what new decree Mr. Hussein might announce. He saw powerless citizens falsely condemned, he says, while ruling Baath Party bosses drove through stoplights or tortured enemies at will.Skip to next paragraph
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This month, Mr. Khatib watched on television from exile in London as Hussein's regime collapsed and looters stripped Baghdad of everything from bathroom fixtures to the animals at the city zoo.
Out of these tatters, exiles such as Khatib, jurists who stayed behind, and their new American occupiers face the daunting task of rebuilding the rule of law in Iraq.
They must restore judicial independence and citizens' confidence, cleanse the Iraqi legal code of Hussein's egregious decrees, and prosecute former leaders who committed crimes against their people.
But most crucial of all is the need to move rapidly: Other nation- building experiences have shown it may be only weeks before Iraqis lose faith in a new government that can't maintain order and fairly punish those who commit crimes.
Slow progress in Haiti and Kosovo taught nation-builders the vital role the rule of law plays in reestablishing stability. "Without that there is no conducive environment for reconstruction," says Jamal Benomar, a UN official who has helped rebuild legal systems around the world.
In Iraq, at least, jurists won't have to start from scratch. The country has no shortage of good laws on the books, with a strong legal tradition dating back to Hammurabi's ancient code of justice - one of the earliest known bodies of law.
Modern Iraqi law, last overhauled in the late 1960s, is an amalgamation of the Napoleonic codes and Islamic sharia with hints of the Ottomans and British who once ruled there. The result resembles the Egyptian legal code: It contains some concepts familiar to Westerners such as presumption of innocence, while sharia governs family relations.
Exiled Iraqi lawyers say Hussein gradually perverted this justice system during three decades in power, adding decrees to the criminal code that banned most forms of publishing, legalized torture, and sentenced army deserters to death.
More problematic, Khatib says, was the signal Iraqi leaders sent that the law didn't apply to them. "The whole Iraqi people were divided into two kinds: the rulers above the law and the underdogs," says Khatib, who was working in Europe when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and decided not to return.
In the absence of justice under Hussein, Iraqi citizens looked for informal ways of resolving disputes, turning to Baathist officials to take their sides. "It's like the mafia," says Charles Forrest of the US-funded International Campaign to Indict Iraqi War Criminals. "The godfather helps and asks you to return the favor one day."
Regaining lost confidence in the courts and police will be the most pressing task, experts say. Someone must weed out Hussein's most flagrant decrees as well as lawyers and judges tainted by their association with the Baath Party. Iraqi exiles and international observers estimate half of the judges now in office should stay.
But many of the best legal minds retired early or fled the country.
Take Fuad Jawad Ridha, a judge who oversaw supervision of other judges for the Ministry of Justice. "I couldn't sustain this regime," says Mr. Ridha, who fled Iraq in 1990 rather than accept government bribes, and eventually obtained asylum in the United States. "I served justice as much as I could."
Of those who remained, a recent US Army study found, few judges were willing to take risks or suggest improvements as government minders waited to slap down signs of independent thought.
Exiled attorneys say having Iraqi lawyers cut out the rotten parts of the judiciary is a vital part of restoring its independence.