-- The Iraq anti-crime task force that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales announced in Baghdad on Sunday marks a significant shift from earlier U.S. efforts to bolster the Iraqi justice system, according to U.S. officials.
Under the plan, FBI agents and other U.S. investigators will play a direct role in helping to develop evidence and identify suspects in attacks against U.S. forces, while criminal prosecutions will be left up to the new Iraqi court system, U.S. officials said. The task force is modeled loosely on the anti-terrorism and anti-gang units common in the United States.
Until now, the Justice Department has attempted to keep U.S. prosecutors and FBI agents out of direct involvement in criminal cases involving Iraqis and other foreign citizens.
"What we need to do is develop the expertise within the Iraqi community to prosecute assassinations, kidnappings and other serious crimes," Gonzales said in an interview during a brief trip to Iraq. "This should improve the situation."
Gonzales and other officials sought to play down criticism of current Iraqi investigative efforts. "It's not that they can't do the job," said one senior Justice official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of involvement in negotiations between the two governments. "It's that the job is so difficult they need some assistance, and we can provide that."
The task force is likely to include about 10 U.S. investigators, including representatives from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Gonzales said after discussing the idea with Iraqi officials during his seven-hour visit that there was "universal support" for it among Iraqis.
He also said that, despite the ongoing insurgency that has brought the death toll of U.S. military forces in Iraq to more than 1,700, he found the trip to Baghdad "inspiring."
"These people are working under difficult and extreme circumstances, trying to accomplish a very difficult task," he said, referring to Iraqi and U.S. investigators.
The Justice Department has about 100 prosecutors and staff members and 400 contractors in Iraq, primarily helping to train judges, corrections officers and police officers. The FBI also has about 60 agents and analysts in Baghdad who focus primarily on investigating insurgent attacks against U.S. forces.
Among those who traveled to Baghdad with Gonzales was Max Wood, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, who will lead Justice Department efforts in Iraq over the next year.
A special unit of Justice Department prosecutors and investigators in Baghdad is also helping Iraqi prosecutors compile evidence and build criminal cases against former president Saddam Hussein and other members of the deposed government. Gonzales said he did not have any detailed discussions with Iraqi officials about plans for the trials of Hussein and other suspects, saying such decisions were up to the Iraqi government.
Gonzales made his trip to Iraq under intense secrecy and heavy guard as a precaution against being targeted by insurgents. After arriving at Baghdad's international airport early Sunday, he was temporarily stranded while waiting out a sandstorm that had grounded helicopters. Insurgents have made the nine-mile road into the city center extremely dangerous.
The attorney general's presence in Baghdad was not revealed publicly until he was safely inside the Green Zone, the walled compound of former palaces and parks that serves as a shaky refuge for U.S.-led forces and the Iraqi government. [Gonzales returned to Washington on Monday.]