March 27, 2003
AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq -- American lawyers and legal officials in military uniform, toting law books and ready to establish martial law, are traveling with U.S. and British troops surging into Iraq.
The legal experts are hoping, however, the Iraqi justice system won't fall apart in the event of a coalition victory and will be able to maintain order once the shooting stops.
"The U.S. cannot take over the mantle of law enforcement for the Iraqi people," said Lt. Col. Richard Vanderlinden, commander of the 709th Military Police Battalion. "The expectation is that the Iraqi law enforcement structure will remain intact."
Contact between advancing U.S. troops and local authorities has been limited, but as coalition forces take control of territory they, in effect, become the law.
But when Vanderlinden saw civilian looters hauling away crates and aircraft parts from Tallil Airbase in southern Iraq, he let them go since the Iraqi civilian authorities had vanished when the airbase and its surroundings were overrun by the 3rd Infantry Division.
Vanderlinden of Gladstone, Mich., also felt the looters didn't pose a threat to U.S. troops.
Officers say they will step in to prevent murders, rapes, arson and other serious crimes and to quash violence between supporters and opponents of Saddam Hussein and Iraq's antagonistic factions.
"Any riots and we are going to put them down. We're going to send in the infantry. Restoring civil authority and peace is the highest priority. We are not going to let people run riot and rampant," said Capt. Jim Wherry of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the Army's legal arm.
Offenders, Wherry said, could be tried under the U.S. Code of Military Justice, detained for postwar trials by civil authorities or face punishment meted out by the Americans under Iraqi laws. The Iraqi judicial code has been translated into English and made available to the U.S. military.
Iraqi civilians likely to be detained by the Americans include those posing perceived risks to U.S. troops, common criminals and people who might provide valuable intelligence, such as members of Iraq's ruling Baath Party.
"If we catch any terrorists we're going to whisk them off to Guantanamo," Wherry said, referring to the U.S. interrogation center in Cuba where suspected al-Qaida members from Afghanistan are being held.
How the coalition will establish the boundary between U.S. military and Iraqi laws remains a "work in progress," Wherry said.
"We're still making it up as we go along and hope for the best," Wherry of Rock Island, Ill., said. "We are trying to have as little to do with this country as possible while, in effect, taking it over."
Still, Hussein's vast security apparatus is expected to be purged of loyalists and those suspected of torture and other human rights violations. But some supporters will have to be kept in place.
"After World War II, we got rid of all the Nazis in six months and then found out we could not run the country without the Nazis," Wherry said.