Questions Of Justice

One by one, the reasons for sending America to war in Iraq seem to have crumbled. Investigators found no weapons of mass destruction and no proof of claims that Saddam Hussein was plotting with Al Qaeda's terrorists. A year after liberation, Washington's last, best justification for the war seemed to be the promise to transform Iraq into a model of liberty and justice. Now many Iraqis have begun to disbelieve that. Instead of the rule of law, they see not only American misdeeds but an explosion among their fellow Iraqis of lynchings, private militias and kangaroo courts. Iraqis are supposed to resume control of the country's civil institutions on July 1, and no one seems remotely ready for the job--although the latest polls say most Iraqis are passionately eager to be rid of the Americans.

Even before the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted, people were complaining of American arrogance and hypocrisy. One particularly sore topic, especially among Shiites and Kurds, was the Coalition's recent decision to rehabilitate former Baathists to help lead the armed forces of liberated Iraq. The Americans didn't make the gesture of consulting the Iraqi Governing Council before the Marines abruptly cut a deal with several Saddam-era Iraqi generals to police the strife-torn city of Fallujah. The ex-Baathists recruited about 1,000 Sunni gunmen--some of whom had been fighting against the Marines only days earlier. "This is a victory for the terrorists," said Adel Abdel Mahdi of the country's largest Shiite group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He likened the decision to letting ex-Baathists "take an airplane hostage and kill someone each time they want something."

Shiite radicals like Jassim al-Saadi, 36, have their own ideas of what justice looks like. He calls himself a judge, although most civil and religious leaders insist he has no legal standing. The man who appointed him to the job is renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Wanted on arrest warrants related to six killings, al-Sadr denounced U.S. prison abuses last week ("What kind of justice is this?") as his followers engaged in armed combat with American forces. Al-Saadi presides regularly over an illegal Sharia court in Baghdad's Sadr City, and he asserts that he can impose sentences of death: "Our court decrees the death penalty for all collaborators," he says.

The Coalition has spent the past year rebuilding Iraq's French-inspired legal apparatus, but it's painfully slow work. The country's 860-odd investigative and trial judges are struggling to catch up with a backlog of cases from the post-Saddam crime spree. "We have the foundation of a justice system," says Rhadi Hamza al-Rhadi, chief judge of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, "but there are still obstacles." The court's investigative judges are currently reviewing about 450 cases, ranging from looting, smuggling and money laundering to possession of bomb materials.

Al-Sadr's courts don't get bogged down in issues of due process. In the last three weeks in Sadr City, two city-council members have been denounced as collaborators and hanged. A pro-Sadr daily ran grisly photos of one of them, his feet dangling over explosives rigged to keep U.S. troops from retrieving the corpse. In myriad ways, Iraqis are learning that some people can get away with murder.