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U.S. forces trying to restore order in Iraq without laws

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As American forces step up their campaign to arrest gun-toting car thieves and former officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, they are trying to restore order without law.

Although Iraq is the land that gave civilization one of its first legal codes, Baghdad has no main jail, no public defender to speak of and a limited number of judges. Only four of the city's 40 courthouses are in working condition.

Other problems go deeper. Under Saddam's harsh laws, a brush with what passed for a legal system could end in prison, a torture chamber or a mass grave. Rebuilding public trust could take years.

"We are looking forward for justice and our rights. Nothing is clear right now," said Hiba Thamer, 20, a third-year law student at University of al Nahrain, formerly Saddam University, in Baghdad.

"Most people don't know the law," said Haider Hassan, 22, another third-year law student. "For 30 years we have had terrible acts under Saddam. It will take the same period, 30 years or so, then maybe the people will trust the law."

For a start, U.S. military and civilian administrators want to end weeks of lawlessness and send a message that they're tough on crime. They say they don't want to dictate new laws when old ones will do, and that they want to encourage an independent judiciary and equality for all without dictating an American legal system to a future Iraqi government.

"Some changes will need to be made. The extent of those changes and how they're implemented is going to be left up to the Iraqis," said Clint Williamson, the director of transitional crime issues for the National Security Council, who is advising the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

In the south, Marines have put young military lawyers in charge of each province to weed out corrupt judges, bring jurists out of retirement, reopen courthouses and put an end to the severe penalties of the old regime, such as life sentences for larceny and execution for insulting the president.

"There are lots of things, like the separate penalties for adultery, that I think ultimately have to be left up to the Iraqis," Williamson said.

Recently, a man took his bloodied wife to Baghdad's biggest hospital and continued to pummel her in front of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers.

"He had beaten her because she refused to allow him to sleep with their 14-year-old daughter," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Shirley of Hinesville, Ga. "The sad thing is there was nothing we could do, apart from separate them and send her to her mother's house in a taxi, because there are no laws against domestic violence here. The women have to respect their husband's decisions. We can't get involved with religious or cultural beliefs."

The London-based Iraqi Jurists Association has recommended some reforms. And teams of legal experts in Washington, London and Baghdad are combing through the Iraqi criminal code for provisions to remove.

Judges, prosecutors and court administrators from the United States, Britain and Denmark are fanning out across the country to ask how many police are on the streets, whether they are making arrests, how many judges are showing up to work and what types of cases they are handling.

Gazi Faisal, the dean of the law college of the University of al Nahrain, said outside legal help wasn't needed.

"We have enough expertise to make whatever changes are necessary," he said.

At the empty Ministry of Justice recently, legal papers fluttered from blown-out windows and workers swept up a jumble of broken glass, discarded books on election law and metal blinds left behind by looters.

But at the nearby Adamiya courthouse, judges were back at work. One of them, Ibrahim Malik al Hindawi, held preliminary investigations.

"Now there is no authority, no government which can enforce my decisions, so I am just asking the police to bring defendants here so I can hear their story," he said. "You now see a society without government. You can see what kind of things people do when there is no fear of the law."

Shortly after the war, looters were detained for 24 or 48 hours depending on the seriousness of the incident. Now they are held for 21 days, and serious offenders are sent to court.

Amar Farj Hassen al Aadamy, 59, the attorney in charge of defense lawyers in the Adamiya courthouse, is angry that many of the suspects haven't been given Iraqi legal counsel, and he and humanitarian groups have voiced concerns about how detainees are being treated. Still, he said things will fall into place once trials begin again and a more permanent prison is rebuilt.

"These laws of Saddam's were not real laws. It is simple for us to ignore or neglect them," Farj said. "Thieves had their hands cut off, army deserters had their ears sliced off."

Williamson, the adviser, said judges told him that whenever they handled cases they were terrified when they had to make decisions, fearing they might make some important official angry.

Williamson wants to set up a judicial inspection unit of international and local lawyers to investigate allegations of misconduct and incompetence.

After that, he said, the big task will be "getting rid of these shackles that have been put on people under Saddam, and trying to get it to a situation where they're able to operate in a democratic fashion."


(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


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

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