Col. Brett Barkey responds to a Monitor news article

On August 21, 2009, the Christian Science Monitor ran an article, "Ramadi struggles to instill a rule of law." The article bears comment on several points.

First, the author asserts that "Despite a $21 million, US-funded judicial complex opened recently and regular attacks, not a single major case has been brought to justice in at least the last six months."

As the US official responsible for tracking such information, I can report that in the past six months, the Anbar Criminal Court in Ramadi has handed down four death penalties and six life sentences.

Since 2008, over 800 felony cases have been referred from investigative courts to the Anbar Criminal Court in Ramadi for trial, approximately 40 percent of those on terrorism charges.

Second, progress in Iraq should be measured across years not months. The article's focus on what has happened or not in the past six months misses the dramatic improvements since the dark days of Al Qaeda's control of Anbar Province, when courts were either under terrorist control or not operating at all in most of Anbar.

Today, Anbar's civil and criminal courts are busy and functioning across the province. This is a remarkable advancement for the rule of law and is a testament to the courage and tenacity of the Iraqi judges striving in Anbar to overcome significant challenges.

Among those challenges is an Iraqi police force in Anbar built rapidly in the days of the struggles against Al Qaeda. While it is a competent security force according to most measures, it is still learning to transform itself into a traditional law enforcement agency with trained officers applying modern investigative techniques. Iraqi judges rightly dismiss cases where suspects are abused or evidence mishandled (if collected at all).

Contrary to the article's implications, a judge taking a stand against police misconduct is the application of the rule of law. Lacking understanding of their own legal system, Iraqi police are quick to blame Iraqi judges for their own failings. Nevertheless, the Iraqi police in Anbar are learning, and their counterparts in the Iraqi judiciary are trying to teach them. These efforts will take time and may bear fruit only after years of practice.

Another challenge is corruption, a corrosive problem in many parts of Iraq. To its credit, the Iraqi court system in Anbar has reacted when presented with real evidence of judicial misconduct.

Judicial officials closed a felony court in Fallujah in 2007 thought to be corrupt. Judges have been reassigned. To be sure, corruption allegations against judges must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. In Anbar, Iraqi judicial officials have been willing to do exactly that.

A third challenge is the shortage of judges throughout the country. The insurgency has created a huge backlog of cases imposed on a judicial infrastructure built for peacetime. Yet, understandably, one does not want to churn out new judges by handing judicial authority to those without the legal education, temperament, and experience to serve in that important role.

The Iraqi government is trying to expand the Iraqi judiciary, but meaningful increases are unlikely until after our tour is complete.

In sum, Anbar Province, like the rest of Iraq, is in transition. In the maelstrom of transition, and an overly narrow focus on what happens in a single six or 12 month period, we risk overlooking how far Iraq and Anbar have come – at a very high cost.

Colonel Brett Barkey

US Marine Corps Reserve Head, Rule of Law Section Anbar Provincial Reconstruction Team

Anbar Province, Iraq

Reporter Jane Arraf's response

The Aug. 21 article addresses legal challenges facing the city of Ramadi rather than entire province of Anbar, whose cases are heard at the Ramadi Criminal Court.

This seems to be the distinction between the facts cited in the story and those cited by Colonel Barkey. The statistics, time frame, and comments cited in the article come directly from US military officers based in Ramadi.

The article neither blamed Iraqi police nor Iraqi judges in depicting the interaction between the two. It was a snapshot of what is still very much a country struggling to develop a functioning legal system.

That the city and the province have made the progress they have is testament to many remarkably brave Iraqis and Americans. That progress is not negated by a sober look at what Iraqis and Americans alike believe are the challenges ahead.

The Department of Defense's own quarterly report to Congress, in July, states: "Iraq's criminal justice system faces serious challenges."

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