A group of exiled Iraqi lawyers and judges yesterday expressed concern about the Bush administration's plans for creating an interim authority in postwar Iraq and said that anyone appointed to serve in a transitional government should be barred from running in the country's first elections.
Their remarks came during a news conference at a Washington hotel at the conclusion of a two-week legal workshop sponsored by the State and Justice departments. The more than 30 exiled Iraqis at the workshop received training to prepare them for assuming legal and judicial roles in Iraq after the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"We are concerned about the [way] that the reconstruction efforts and a post-Saddam civilian authority is being handled," said Sermid D. Al Sarraf, an Iraqi American lawyer from Los Angeles.
"It is our unanimous opinion that anyone who serves on the interim authority should meet very stringent qualifications" with regard to professional expertise and "moral character," he said, and have "a longstanding reputation" in Iraq.
He also said the group believes that the interim government should be made up of "technical people," rather than political activists, to ensure that they are working "strictly to serve the country and not for political ambitions." Sarraf said the group's opinions had been formally communicated to the State Department.
Mohamed Al Jabiri, another participant in the workshop and a former Iraqi diplomat who was jailed by Hussein for two years, said that the United States "must be very careful about any moves to establish the civil and political system in Iraq." He said that "we hope the Pentagon will listen to the State Department . . . that has the knowledge about what is going on in Iraq and how to handle the situation."
The Pentagon and the State Department have clashed over how to create a transitional government in Iraq at war's end. The Pentagon has proposed a civil administration composed of U.S. citizens who would report to a military governor, as well as an interim political authority made up of exiled Iraqis. The State Department is wary of some of those exiled leaders, who have lived outside Iraq for decades, and prefers a larger role for the United Nations.
The workshop that ended yesterday was the fourth such session that the State Department's Future of Iraq Office has held for the exiled lawyers and judges since last summer. In addition to providing legal training, the sessions were aimed at eliciting the group's recommendations for reforming Iraq's legal system.
Those recommendations are in a 700-page report that the group will present to the State Department and the United Nations. Many members of the group are affiliated with the London-based Iraqi Jurist Association, an organization of exiled Iraqis.
The report suggests that a new Iraqi court be established to try senior Iraqi officials accused of internationally recognized war crimes and human rights violations. It also recommends a separate court in which Iraqi citizens could demand justice for abuses suffered at the hands of lower-level officials. In that court, those who admitted their crimes and apologized would be eligible for an amnesty.
Tariq Al Saleh, a former Iraqi appeals court judge who now heads the Iraqi Jurist Association, estimated that about half of the 500 judges in the country would be qualified to serve in a new legal system. "We will ask all of them to put in a new application," Saleh said, "and we will look at whether this judge suits his new position or not."
Hussain Al Nahi, who was a lawyer in Nasiriyah before leaving Iraq in 1991 and now lives in San Diego, said that some of the State Department workshops were led by U.S. military lawyers who spoke about their experiences in Bosnia. "We need to correct things so we can achieve justice in Iraq," said Nahi, 39. "I am looking forward to going home."
The workshop leaders included two federal judges, international law specialists and U.S. attorneys, all of whom were recruited by the Justice Department's Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training.
Another participant in the workshops, Ali Shaker of Prince William County, said he plans to write to the American Bar Association to propose an Iraqi-American Friendship Association that would support the training of new lawyers in Iraq.
Shaker, a part-time security guard who was a lawyer in Iraq before he fled in 1991, also plans to return to his country as soon as possible. "I'm very happy," he said, "because I feel we are not that far from Iraq now."