Making Connections

How the troop surge hurt the Iraqi justice system

In the course of the presidential campaign, the troop surge in Iraq became a rhetorical weapon hurled back and forth by the candidates. Was the surge working? Did Obama oppose the surge? Could he admit that it was successful?

While the press faithfully transcribed these exchanges, it wasn’t always easy to move beyond simplistic questions and evaluate the surge not just according to the goals that the Bush administration set out for it—but holistically, in all its effects on life in Iraq.

Today’s New York Times has a good write-up about a Human Rights Watch report that assesses the Iraqi justice system and finds dismal conditions (emphasis mine):

The report portrays a system under which defendants are often abused in custody and held for months or even years before being referred to a judge. When cases are heard, the defendants are often left without adequate defense counsel to answer charges, which are frequently based on secret informants, coerced confessions and flimsy evidence, the report found. Juveniles are often held with adults, it found, despite an Iraqi law requiring they be held separately.

The court was created in 2003 by the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority to hear cases of serious offenses, including terrorism. One factor in the court’s systemic failures is an overwhelming caseload, a result in part of widespread arrests in 2007 related to the surge operations in Baghdad, the report said.

Kudos to the Times for picking on that detail, which was unfortunately left out of the Associated Press dispatch.

All of the questions surrounding the troop surge are by no means answered, and it is yet unclear to what extent violence has been reduced and how long the surge’s effects will last. In the case of the court system, the situation is expected to worsen in 2009, when the American forces hand over all detainees into Iraqi custody. While today’s news is disheartening, it is imperative that journalists, as well as NGOs, consider the impact of the war on the lives of Iraqis, beyond basic casualty numbers. This is one report that brings the picture into shaper focus.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.