BAGHDAD, Iraq—Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's legal system hardly had a reputation for fairness or integrity. Since the war began, it hasn't functioned at all.
Now American military lawyers are trying to guide the rebuilding of a legal system where everyone, from clerks to judges, was expected to join Saddam's Baath party. It won't be easy.
Many buildings are severely damaged. Libraries and records have been lost.
Figuring out which officials should be barred from positions will be tricky. So many were tainted under the former regime that staffing courts will be difficult if all are excluded.
"It's daunting," said Col. Marc Warren, staff judge advocate of the U.S. Army's V Corps, which is coordinating the occupation of Iraq. "There are certainly some people higher up who are bad folks and you don't want them on the bench."
Warren was one of five military lawyers who sat down this week with six Iraqi judges and lawyers to discuss how to get Baghdad's courts up and running again.
On the other side was an Iraqi judge who acknowledged he was a Baath party member. The judge, Mohammed Jabar, said he had sought the meeting with U.S. lawyers "for my city."
Under Saddam, party membership was expected of nearly all government officials, including judges and lawyers. Those who refused initially were allowed to emigrate but, as Saddam's popularity declined during the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, they were dismissed, sent to prison or killed.
"There were some good judges who were dismissed," said Nabil Adham, a private lawyer who said he was dismissed as a judge in 1982 for refusing to join the Baath Party. "They refused to become bad judges so they were dismissed."
Dressed in suits and ties, the six Iraqis at the table condemned the system in which they had formerly worked and, in a few cases, acknowledged their complicity in it.
"The highest court was just following the government," said Abdul Hussain Muhsein, a Baghdad lawyer who was imprisoned by Saddam's regime. "The regime would just make a telephone call to give them the decision."
"When I was a criminal prosecutor, I would always get calls from the higher officials," said his brother, Abdulameer Muhsein, a former judge and prosecutor who later became a private lawyer. "I did it but I couldn't bear it, so I retired."
Still, the Iraqis said the legal system's fundamentals are sound. Iraqi lawyers study four years at the college level at one of four law schools in Baghdad. Those who want to be judges complete two additional years of study. They must retire at age 60.
About one-fourth of Iraq's lawyers are women, Ibrahim estimated. They are traditionally not accepted into judicial training programs but there are five or six women on the bench, allowed into the judiciary during a brief period of liberalization.
Travis Hall, one of the military lawyers and an Arabic speaker who translated a copy of the Iraqi penal code found by the Army, said that Iraq's criminal and civil laws were consistent with Western standards.
The most notable exception was the way political cases were handled. The cases were investigated and prosecuted in secret by the intelligence service or security police and the people who handled those cases reported directly to Saddam's all-powerful Revolutionary Council.
The American military lawyers asked the Iraqis to assemble lists of judges whom they consider competent and trustworthy. Warren said the many lists they expect to receive will be cross-checked so that unqualified or unacceptable judges can be weeded out.
"We are not the ultimate authority," Warren said. "What we're trying to do is to get those who are ready, willing and able to get the courts working."
But a tour showed that there are other issues. The Ministry of Justice, where Iraq's Supreme Court was located, had been set ablaze in the chaos that followed the American invasion of the city and can't be safely entered. Its records and library books were probably all destroyed.
A court complex in the Karkh district had been damaged by American bombs, with unexploded ordnance rendering one of its buildings off limits. Other parts were looted and perhaps usable if they are cleaned up, but court files were scattered all over.
"These courts are in such bad shape, it's scandalous," Warren said.
The Iraqis argued that getting the courts up and running must be given a high priority if Iraqis are to feel secure. A stop at the police academy in the Shebaba district brought the message home.
There members of the 422nd Civilian Affairs Battalion and Baghdad police officers jointly were watching over 35 prisoners confined in the same cell, nine of them for serious crimes and the others for misdemeanors.
They represent everyone in this city of more than 5 million residents apprehended and detained in connection with criminal offenses in the five weeks since the war began.
(Gerlin reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+court