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U.S. training Iraqi exiles to take part in new government

WASHINGTON—Even as bombs fall in Iraq, U.S. planners are recruiting scores of Iraqi exiles to design and perhaps take part in an interim administration once Saddam Hussein is fully out of power.

Some 40 exiled Iraqi lawyers and judges are converging on Washington this weekend, including some from Europe and the Persian Gulf, for legal training that would allow them to take part in temporary courts in postwar Iraq.

Justice Department officials and outside experts in international law, war crimes and U.S.-style judicial systems are leading the two-week course, participants say.

"They want to introduce Iraqis to the Anglo-Saxon legal system," said Moniem Al-Khatib, a London-based Iraqi exile lawyer who said he has been invited to the U.S. training.

Both the Pentagon and the State Department have recruited Iraqi exiles, whom they call "free Iraqis," in separate programs with distinct purposes. The Pentagon program seeks exiles who will receive salaries to administer services in postwar Iraq, while the exiles in the State Department program have volunteered to design how a new Iraq should look.

The legal training for Iraqi exiles is run as part of the State Department program.

The Pentagon is contracting more than 100 exiles for three-month or six-month periods to return to post-Saddam Iraq and help run provincial governments or work in the approximately 20 ministries in Baghdad.

"The reason we're bringing them in is because they have lived in a democratic country now. They understand the democratic process," said a senior Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Iraqi exiles placed in specific ministries, the official said, would "help us facilitate making that ministry more efficient."

The State Department's Future of Iraq Program is larger and less well-defined than the Pentagon program. It has recruited 240 or so exiles, many of them with advanced degrees, to serve on 16 working groups. The working groups deal with such topics as defense policy, civil society, public health, transitional justice, news media, national security, public finance and anti-corruption efforts.

The Future of Iraq program offers travel, lodging and incidental expenses of the exiles, but does not give stipends.

U.S. officials are saying little in public about the recruitment and training of Iraqi exiles.

The Pentagon has not offered the names of those it has hired, and the State Department has announced only a few names of working group members, noting that some of the exiles fear for the safety of relatives in Iraq.

Several exiles contacted by Knight Ridder voiced satisfaction with being recruited for the Future of Iraq Program and with the working papers they have produced.

"A lot of efforts have gone into these reports," said Sermid Al-Sarraf, a business and family lawyer in Los Angeles, Calif., who is a member of the transitional justice working group.

Al-Sarraf, 38, spoke animatedly about the need to "respect the rights of the accused and the rights of victims" in an interim court system.

"People have been repressed for 20, 25 years. We have to establish the rule of law from the very start," he said.

An Iraqi lawyer living in the United Arab Emirates, Reyadh Abdul Majeed Al-Kabban, who is on the same working group, said many of the people attending the upcoming Justice Department session once worked "as judges and are already trained."

Some grumbling has come from Iraqi exiles with professional credentials who say the Pentagon never approached them to work in Iraq, while less qualified exiles were hired.

"I hear a lot of complaints from Iraqi experts involved in the State Department working groups. They said they've never heard from (the Pentagon)," said David Mack, a former U.S. ambassador who now is vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington educational group. "We're talking about a lot of successful business people, Ph.Ds, directors of hospitals and so on."

Bush administration officials insist that a post-Saddam Iraq will be designed and eventually administered by Iraqis, and the State Department consistently hails the exile working groups.

"I believe their contributions and their accomplishments have been substantial," Marc Grossman, the State Department's under secretary for political affairs, said Wednesday.

But he and others have not said whether the working group documents will be printed and distributed in a post-Saddam Iraq, used to mold an interim administration or put in a closet.

Mack, the former U.S. ambassador, said he has been told that some of the exiles hired by the Pentagon "are people of a much lower skill level" with loyalty to certain Iraqi opposition groups.

Mack warned that Iraqis might judge the post-Saddam transition harshly.

"It's going to be judged on whether people are getting food, clean water, electricity and walking in the streets without getting caught up in somebody's blood feud," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.