Rule of Law

Dispatches From Iraq

Ben Hallman

This week, Ben Hallman, a reporter for The American Lawyer, is posting dispatches from Iraq. He is embedded with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, reporting on the restoration of Iraq's civil justice system. Read his posts here and contact Ben at

KUWAIT, REDUX — Posted April 16, 2008, Noon ET

Not even Borat can make me laugh at 6 a.m. I spent the night on a metal bench in the hanger that serves as a terminal on the military side of Baghdad International Airport. The authorities there leave the television turned on, at full blast, 24/7. I woke up to the scene of Borat racing naked through a hotel. The armed forces programming director has some nerve. I'm writing now from Kuwait, nearly 24 hours after the latest leg of my journey began.

The waiting around for something to happen (or not happen) in Iraq can be incredibly frustrating, but I've also found it a great opportunity to strike up chance conversations with those stuck in the same boat. Last night, for example, while waiting for the bus to take me to the airport, I talked with a Navy Seal who was retiring after 22 years in the service. He had spent the past nine months training Iraqi army forces. I've heard no shortage of complaining about everything since I've been here, but I've also noticed that most people, after venting, end on a positive note. The most popular analogy floating around today is that American freedom wasn't won easily, either—see wars Revolutionary and Civil—and that we shouldn't expect miracles overnight. Or even after five years. The Navy officer was different. "This was a war about oil," he bluntly stated. "And now it's all about money." He pointed to the KBR private security people who run the shuttle to the airport, and so much else in Iraq.

I had read about the outsourcing of functions once handled by the Army (from cooking to convoy security), but I never appreciated to what extent the military is reliant on independent contractors until I got here. KBR, in particular, seems like a fifth branch of the armed services. KBR workers are everywhere, and they make far more (in some cases) than their military counterparts. A convoy driver, I'm told, is paid between $6,000 and $8,000 a month. The officer told me the Seals had to dramatically boost their reenlistment bonus to staunch defections to the private side. At the other end of the spectrum, a Peruvian guard, also employed by KBR, told me he makes about $1,200 a month. The guard told me he is leaving soon, after two years in Baghdad. "Baghdad, too much muerte," he told me, pantomiming a rocket flying into the Green Zone. Iraqi army soldiers are also paid far less than senior KBR and U.S. military personnel. My conclusion: There is an inverse relationship here between a guard/soldier's exposure to danger and his salary. On my last afternoon in Baghdad, another reporter and I tried to get into the monument to the fallen soldier. Two lonely Iraqi army soldiers at the gate apologized and said it was closed. Then they asked for water. I told the Navy Seal about this and he said Iraqi soldiers are issued one bottle a day, never mind that it was easily 95 degrees. (Our escort, a National Guard soldier from the media unit, bought the two Iraqis some water.)

Tonight is my last one in military custody. Tomorrow I'm picking up my passport and heading to Kuwait City for a night in a hotel before flying back to New York on Thursday. Some final thoughts before I resign my post as editor in chief and senior correspondent of The American Lawyer's Baghdad bureau:

—I had hoped to do more blogging about rule of law issues while I was here. This is my first experience blogging while reporting a story at the same time—my first time blogging, in fact—and I didn't appreciate that the two aims of reporting and blogging can be at odds. I chose to withhold most of what I learned about rule of law here for the simple reason that I didn't want to undermine my own story. I tried to make up for the lack of reporting substance with regular personal hygiene updates. Speaking of which:

—I'm not saying I need to wash my clothes, but my socks just created their own rudimentary digestive system.

—If you were supposed to manage my fantasy baseball team while I was away and for some bizarre reason failed to start Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte on what would be his best day of the season, and this contributed to my crushing defeat, you are dead to me.

—Buying one of those U-shaped neck pillows at JFK before I left was one of the best decisions I made on the entire trip. Another good buy: a Skype plug-in headset at the PX in Baghdad, which allowed me to make cheap calls over the Internet. And, of course, one needs a good book. I finished Den of Thieves by James Stewart on the plane today. I know I'm nearly 20 years late to this book, but I was surprised at how relevant the subject matter is to today's market. The story, essentially, is that of the invention of the mortgage-backed security market in the United States by a group of larger-than-life bond traders at Salomon Brothers. If you want to know more about collateralized loan obligations (and who doesn't?), add this to your reading list.

—Finally, I want to thank friends, family, and colleagues who wrote to offer their support. Your e-mails were great. Thanks for reading.


GREEN ZONE – Posted April 14, 2008, Noon ET

It was a two–car bomb morning. The first, around 7:30 a.m., shook the press center. We're close to the Red Zone (in fact, some call this area "the Orange Zone"), and the explosion sounded like it was just outside the walls. I heard the second explosion while conducting an interview at the Rusafa prison and court complex in central Baghdad. According to an early news report, the bomb was placed under a parked car near downtown and killed four people. James Geoghegan, the public affairs officer at the complex, told me how to distinguish a car bomb from a mortar. A mortar, he says, sounds like a crash, like someone dropped a trailer from the sky. A car bomb explosion has a deeper timbre, a throbbing boom that you feel in your chest. These are the kinds of impromptu conversations one has here.

I went to Rusafa in the back of an armored vehicle. I had to tell the gunner my blood type before we set out—it wasn't your typical taxi ride. (Rusafa, by the way, is the part of Baghdad on the eastern side of the Euphrates. Karkh is the western half. It's confusing because both are also the names of specific neighborhoods. The Green Zone is on the Karkh side of the river, and also in the Karkh neighborhood.) The criminal court in Rusafa processes Iraqi-held prisoners, while the criminal court I visited yesterday processes coalition-held prisoners. Rusafa is also the site of a new lawyers defense clinic, paid for by the U.S. government, which should be up and running in a few weeks. While there, I talked to JAG officers and the civilian administrators about some of their projects. They assist Iraqi authorities in investigating major crimes. (For example, someone in Basra has killed about 100 women for dressing immodestly.) The investigative teams partner with the Iraqis, but stay out of the courtrooms.

One rule of law topic that I've been meaning to bring up is the Iraqi amnesty law, which was passed in February. This is a big deal here. Any Iraqi-held prisoner, and there are officially about 30,000, qualifies for amnesty unless he is accused of one of a handful of what Americans would call capital crimes, such as murder and rape. Also, if a detainee has been held for six months without seeing an investigative judge, or 12 months without seeing a trial judge, he qualifies. (Many Iraqi detainees have been held for years without seeing a judge.) The amnesty law seems cut-and-dried, but implementation is another matter. On my return trip from Rusafa, I sat in the back of an armored vehicle with a U.S. Department of Justice official who is charged with helping the Iraqis implement the law. A few hundred prisoners have been released under the law, he said, but there are challenges. To apply, a prisoner, or a family member, or a lawyer needs to fill out the proper paperwork. An early problem: Police were selling the forms, or simply refusing to distribute them. There are also sectarian concerns—a Shiite prisoner might receive preferential treatment over a Sunni, or vice versa. An Iraqi review committee is currently looking at thousands of applications and case files to determine who qualifies. Meanwhile, the trial courts have ground to practically a stop. GREEN ZONE—Posted April 13, 2008, 4:32 p.m. ET


The Clock Tower

If you got to this blog from the American Lawyer home page, you clicked on a photo of Iraq's Central Criminal Court. And, yes, that is a giant clock protruding from the top. (The photo on this page is of your corespondent in front of the tower.)

The structure was built to commemorate the Arab Summit of 1980 and was later used to hold all the booty Saddam Hussein received as gifts from other leaders. During the U.S. invasion, the clock and the building were badly damaged, and the building was looted. It was renovated several years ago and now handles coalition-held detainees and political corruption cases. Though technically in the Red Zone, one entrance to the courthouse is a short walk from a metal door in the T-wall that lines an expressway heading out of Baghdad. I visited it this morning with the rule of law team.

This was my first encounter with Iraqi detainees. I was told that Iraqi prisoners are docile, like to be together, and don't like furniture in their cells. (From first appearances, this seems to be correct—though I didn't ask the dozen or so quiet men in red jumpsuits sitting on the floors of two holding cells.) The prisoners who come through this complex are typically held at one of the three large American-run detention facilities in Iraq. They come in a few at a time for hearings before an investigative judge and, if necessary, a trial before a three-judge tribunal. I briefly observed a trial but was told by a guard outside that the Iraqis we were with wouldn't be allowed to translate the proceedings for me, so we moved on to a much more interesting section of the courthouse, more interesting to someone looking for opinions on legal affairs in Iraq, at least.

The lawyers' room is easily the most happening place in the courthouse. It is exactly as it sounds: a room filled with lawyers. Smoking, chatting, laughing. In one corner, a woman in a black chador serves lunch and sodas. Upon entering, two little girls latched onto Sergeant Angel Storm, my military escort. (Storm is a spritely 22-year-old. Good with kids and idiot civilian journalists. Later, out in the open in the Green Zone, the incoming fire clarion sounded and she quickly guided me to the nearest shelter.) I'll save the details of the conversations I had with the lawyers for the story I'm writing—blogging, after all, is only my night job—but overall it was an enlightening trip.

Tomorrow I'm headed to another courthouse in Rusafa, a neighborhood across the river. I should have time when I return for one last blog entry from the Green Zone.