You might think of me as an ideal candidate to help reestablish a just legal system in my homeland. I'm an Iraqi American who has practiced law for the past 40 years, both in my native and in my adopted lands. I participated in the Iraqi political process for more than 20 years, first as a law student attending the University of Baghdad School of Law and later as an attorney defending political dissidents. After Saddam Hussein came to power and I left for the United States, I took the bar exam and opened my own law firm here, specializing in immigration law and personal injury cases.
In short, I understand the Iraqi civil law system and how much it owes to the French and Islamic legal traditions; I have built my career within America's common law system and know how deeply it respects the rule of law. I am aware of the strengths and flaws of both approaches, how they reflect the cultures of each country -- and that you cannot simply adapt one system and impose it on the other country. And what is true for the legal system is also true for other civic institutions.
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So you can understand why, after 23 years of living outside Iraq, I yearned to assist with the rebuilding of Iraqi society after Saddam Hussein's fall. My children -- a dentist, a doctor of neuropsychology, a lawyer and a retail manager -- have successful careers in the United States. "I have fulfilled my duty to you," I told them 16 months ago, when I made the decision to return. "Now, I must fulfill my duty to Iraq." I believed I could put a lifetime of experience to good use in my native country.
The challenge I set myself has been harder than I ever imagined. The four months that I spent in Iraq during 2003 crushed my optimism. Exactly one year after my return, I sit in my home in Virginia, worrying about my relatives, fearful for the country where I was born and increasingly disillusioned by the mismanaged American occupation. I have always pinned my hopes on the complete transfer of authority to Iraqis. For true stability, Iraq needs to be governed by men and women who have been democratically elected. That is what I hope for from the January election.
I was always aware there would be challenges for Iraq after Saddam. Before I left for Iraq in June a year ago I got together with other Iraqi expatriates, and we met with members of Congress and legal experts on Capitol Hill. Iraq is not Afghanistan, we told them. It is not a decentralized tribal system, on which new democratic institutions can be imposed; it has a sophisticated history of centralized government, and Iraqis need help rebuilding security, the economy and a viable governing administration themselves. Of course, our legal system was subverted by Saddam, who added amendments to the established laws and made judges instruments of his tyranny. But Iraq is a country with a valid system and with a population of experienced and highly trained legal scholars who were either thrown out of the judiciary or forced to leave the country.
Once I got to Iraq, I advanced my candidacy to be president of the National Bar Association -- an organization I had originally been invited to join some 35 years before, when the then-president asked me to form a disciplinary committee. Unlike in the United States, where the bar association is a purely professional group, the presidency in Iraq is a political post -- one that I hoped might allow me a platform to promote my views about the transition from American occupation to Iraqi rule. What I got instead was insight into how quickly good aims can turn bad when a foreign power doesn't pay enough respect to local people and institutions.
On my second day in Iraq, for example, I went to the bar association building to meet some old friends. I found the place surrounded by U.S. soldiers. The lawyers were resentful of the military presence but too fearful to complain. That same day, the soldiers arrested one of the lawyers, forcing him to the ground and handcuffing him. I ran over, identified myself as an Iraqi American and tried to explain that this man should not be treated like a common thug. I don't know why they had arrested him, but I was shocked by the rough treatment and lack of due process.
Later, when I went to the courthouse in Kut, I found it barricaded with U.S. Army tanks. I persuaded the soldiers to let me in and discovered that a lawyer had been accused of threatening another and had been arrested. When I complained that the arrest was made without a warrant and tried to involve a judge, the soldiers simply dismissed him as corrupt. The country's future stability depended on engaging men like these, not in turning them against America.
Time and again as I traveled around the country from Mosul to Basra, building support for my candidacy, I saw American soldiers, highly trained in the skills of combat, failing in the art of managing the peace.
Stories of such failures have become all-too familiar in the pages of American newspapers. But there is still reason for hope, and the legal system provides a metaphor for broader reforms. A former teacher of mine became president of the bar association and moved on to become minister of justice; a friend now heads the legal system. Both are good, knowledgeable men. If they are permitted to work independently, without the influence of the occupation, the whole system will become more attractive to the Iraqi people.
For them to do so, further changes and clarifications are needed from the Americans. First, the $18.4 billion package that Congress has approved for rebuilding Iraq needs to benefit the Iraqi people, not U.S. corporations. Iraqis who have learned about American companies profiting or even engaging in fraud have become convinced that the United States invaded Iraq for oil and financial gain. That belief has been compounded by the awareness that Iraqi oil revenue is being spent by the Americans.
Second, most Iraqis believe that the United States intends to stay indefinitely and that cooperating with the Americans will only prolong their presence. Therefore, there must be a firm timetable for withdrawing the U.S. military.
Third, it is essential that the Iraqi army and police force be reconstituted under the supervision of independent, well-qualified Iraqis. As we are seeing, military might can secure individual victories, but it will not bring lasting stability. The only way to do so is by handing security to Iraqis who are familiar with the culture.
When I left Iraq a year ago to rejoin my family in the States, I thought I would soon go back. But the deteriorating security situation has kept me here, watching from afar.
I telephone every day and hear stories of bombings, deaths and near escapes from my relatives in Baghdad and Najaf. I hear about civil society dissolving into chaos. My cousin Qais told me about the day his car was struck from behind by a moped driver when he was stopped at a red light. The moped driver, who was an Iraqi, threatened Qais, saying that if he did not pay him $200, he would come to Qais's home and kill everyone. Qais knew the accident was no fault of his own, but with no viable authority to turn to, he paid the money. It is a less dramatic story than many I could tell, but it reveals the kind of everyday injustices that disrupt the lives of honest people. They will continue until Iraqis are given control over their own futures.
Abdul Muhsin al-Athari was imprisoned in Iraq from 1978-79 for opposing Saddam Hussein's views. He fled to the United States in 1980 and now lives in McLean.