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Finding Justice In Iraq

by Gregory Paw

Spring 2006, Vol. 69, No. 1

I recently lived and worked in Baghdad for nearly eleven months, assisting the Iraqis in preparing criminal cases against Saddam Hussein and his inner leadership circle. Despite enormous challenges, our team of lawyers and investigators helped the Iraqis bring the first criminal case against Hussein and address the long-term issues they will face in bringing justice to their nation. I’m proud to have played a part in this process and to have used my experience from prosecuting federal criminal cases in Philadelphia to help the Iraqi people.

I served as deputy chief of the Regime Crime Liaison Office (RCLO). Finding that prosecution of the former Iraqi leaders furthered our national security interests, President Bush established the RCLO to assist the Iraqis in this historic task. The Iraqi interim government already had established the Iraqi Special Tribunal (IST) to investigate and prosecute these crimes. The RCLO would assist the IST in these tasks and provide knowledge and training to the Iraqis.

Gregory Kehoe, a former federal prosecutor from Florida, served as the first RCLO chief. Kehoe and I had worked together as counsel to a Congressional investigation several years ago and became quick friends. He is a gifted lawyer, but never lost touch with his origins as the son of a New York City cop. His vocabulary often proved colorful and, more than once, his direct manner startled the staid diplomatic corps at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But Kehoe also has an amazing ability to befriend those he encounters. He seemed to have pals everywhere we traveled.

Kehoe asked me to join him as his deputy, but later joked that he had omitted many facts during his recruiting pitch. The truth is that no one could have predicted how dynamic events in Iraq would be. In fact, only one day after I agreed to join Kehoe, a major escalation of violence against western forces in Fallujah began. Things would only get worse once we arrived in Iraq. Despite these issues, not once did I regret the decision to join Kehoe’s team.

I arrived in Baghdad in May 2004 and began work with virtually no assets or road map for accomplishing our tasks. The return of sovereignty to the Iraqis was to take place in just weeks, and our first job was readying charging documents against Hussein and other high-ranking detainees. This fast-paced project and an early fact-finding trip to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq provided an opportunity to take stock of the available evidence. The assessment left us in awe of both the acts Hussein had committed and the enormity of the work we faced.

We also began to make contacts on the IST. This is how I met Ra’ad Juhi, an IST investigative judge and perhaps the bravest man I know. I came to learn that Juhi had strong and wise instincts--something that would serve him well in the coming months. While only 34 years old, he nonetheless has significant experience investigating complex cases. Juhi became something of a thorn in Saddam Hussein’s side even before the dictator’s overthrow as he investigated corruption in the closing days of Hussein’s regime.

Juhi and I bonded instantly. As we shared tales from our work investigating corruption, we found we had walked common ground. The judge and his family loved playing host to our staff, and we shared long meals of Iraqi specialties such as masgoof (a grilled river fish). We even broke the Ramadan fast as part of his family.

The Crimes of the Anfal Campaign

In connection with the IST, our staff investigated several major crimes under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Perhaps the largest, in terms of number of victims, was the Anfal of the late 1980s. The Anfal—from the Koran meaning “the spoils”—involved military campaigns against civilians in thousands of tiny mountain villages in the Kurdish region. Hussein’s forces rounded up men, women and children in these villages and forced them into resettlement camps and terrible prisons miles from home. More than 180,000 victims were murdered and left in remote mass graves.

One of our most difficult tasks involved exhuming some of these mass graves. Our first project, at Hatra in the Ninawa Province in northwestern Iraq, unearthed a killing field holding as many as twelve mass graves. We conducted thorough forensic exhumations of two of these graves. One contained almost 200 women and children, all killed with single gun wounds to the head. The other contained about 180 men, bound together at the wrists and raked down with automatic weapon fire. The images still haunt me.

The graves also held many identification cards and artifacts buried with the bodies. These cards proved invaluable, giving the victims names and faces. We planned to take the cards back to villages and determine how the victims disappeared. We could not imagine what awaited us on these trips.

Many of the victims were from villages near the beautiful Dokan Lake. These villages cannot be found on maps; they simply are too small, amounting to nothing more than a cluster of families. When we traveled to these villages, we saw a life not of this century. The mud shacks built into the mountain sides had no running water, much less electricity or telephone. Life revolved around a communal well and small mosque. In fact, when Hussein’s forces attacked villages, they often first destroyed the mosques, signaling that the locals would have no reason for returning. Thanks to the identification cards, we found family members of many victims. These members told us how, during the Anfal, people would be herded to relocation centers, while others would simply disappear. We managed to put together a tremendous evidence book against Saddam Hussein – including eyewitnesses to his murderous ways.

I felt significantly safer in the Kurdish region than in the rest of Iraq, and trips there presented chances to enjoy their culture. The Kurds welcomed us with open arms. Children would approach us with sweets and gifts as we walked through the colorful markets of the two leading Kurdish cities. We saw beautiful carpets, every type of nut and date, lovely fruit carts filled with countless colors, and clothes ranging in style from the latest western wear to traditional Kurdish fashion. We saw people getting haircuts, people having suits pressed and teenagers teasing each other. It was great to see because it represented what all of Iraq could be like some future day. Considering the difficult times the Kurdish region experienced in the not-so-distant past, we knew the dream of a peaceful and democratic society could become real if given the right conditions. Of course, none of us labored under the illusion that this transition would be easy or quick, but life in the north gave us hope and provided very nice memories of time in that area.

A Regime of Terror

The first trial that Saddam Hussein faces arises from events in Ad-Dujayl, a small town sixty miles north of Baghdad, where a political party opposed to Hussein had flourished. In July 1982, a small group of them tried to kill Hussein as he passed through town. The attempt failed, but a shaken Hussein retaliated with a rampage against the town and its residents. Hussein used the force of his internal intelligence agency (then run by his half-brother) to round up the town’s men, woman and children. School children were removed from classes; even pregnant woman were led away. Many were killed on the spot, and at least 140 others later were executed without trial. Still more spent years in dank prisons without even a hearing. Hussein’s forces also leveled large parts of the village and chopped down prized local date trees, eliminating the possibility of a harvest for years to come. This damage is visible still today. Hussein even ordered Ad-Dujayl removed from maps, changing its name to Al Faras—“The Horseman”—a favorite image Hussein held of himself.

We initially had few leads in investigating these events; then we received a great break. An experienced prosecutor from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office happened to be a captain in an Army reserve unit stationed near Ad-Dujayl. While meeting townspeople, this prosecutor found witnesses to Hussein’s crimes there. A chance lunch conversation between one of our lawyers and a military officer familiar with our work brought us in contact with a treasure trove of evidence. We soon had IST investigators in Ad-Dujayl meeting with these witnesses.

Scores of brave people in Ad-Dujayl were willing to talk with us, despite the risks these meetings carried. Because the town lies in the heart of the Sunni triangle, our work there was dangerous for our staff as well. We were guarded by the prosecutor’s men, a colorful group of New Yorkers who told us about missing their favorite coffee shops in Bedford-Styvestant and longing to see their families at the holidays. One man kept a small calendar by his armored vehicle’s door, with a smudge through each day spent in Iraq. I always felt safe under their care and made sure they knew their role was critical to our mission.

Accomplishing even simple tasks in Iraq presented amazing complexity. A drive of a few miles to see a witness could require days of planning, the presence of heavily armored military escorts and coordination of many other support elements. Longer missions, involving Blackhawk helicopters flying only a few feet above the desert, required even more effort. We faced mountains of documents, mostly hand-written in Arabic and often scattered on floors of bombed-out buildings. But most frightening were the frequent attacks against our staff. Rockets bearing explosives came into our compound nearly every day. One of our lawyers, despite having been hit with shrapnel, bravely carried three injured Iraqis to safety during a mortar fight. Suicide bombers targeted our convoys. Indeed, our mass grave team was caught in a well-planned ambush, but fortunately escaped without serious injury. We all were armed and armored.

Despite these obstacles, we found ways to do our work. The IST brought criminal charges within a year of its inception—a remarkable feat in international law and considering the IST’s working conditions. And we had some incredible experiences, such as watching a group of Kurds parade the American flag onto a stage during a rally; standing by IST officials as they learned to stake independence in the Iraqi government; meeting countless victims of crimes who put aside fear so as to tell us their amazing survival stories; and, finally, seeing the pride of Iraqis showing us their fingers, marked with indelible purple ink after participating in democratic elections for the first time in their lives.

I give my heartfelt thanks to U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan, who strongly encouraged me to accept this unique opportunity, and to my colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office who picked up my work in my absence. Finally, thanks to my wife and daughters, whose brave sacrifices allowed me to take on this task. It was an amazing experience I will never forget.