Here they are and they are all yours,” said Marine Corps Captain Robert “Bob” Stephens. He was pointing toward a large room at the end of a lengthy hallway in the temporary Diwaniyah Courthouse, where several dozen Iraqi judges were anxiously waiting to meet me. Stephens was one of the young JAG officers who accompanied the Marines during their successful push to Baghdad.

“You will find that motivating these men is a lot like pushing a piece of string” Stephens said. “But remember, the future of the new Iraq is in the hands of guys like these.”

Stephens walked slowly down the corridor toward the judges. He scanned each doorway for any sign of trouble. I followed closely behind him. It seemed more than a bit unusual to carry military arms into a court of law, but these were not normal times. May 2003 saw an end to Saddam Hussein’s organized military forces but a new enemy was organizing and planning to frustrate the fledgling democracy.

There was good reason to proceed cautiously. My first introduction to the “New Iraq” occurred a few days earlier when I rode for the first time to the Diwaniyah town market. The city’s market area was known as a clandestine arms bazaar where anything from a pistol to a rocket propelled grenade could be easily and cheaply purchased. It was here that I witnessed a hand grenade assault on several innocent civilians. I was appalled by the indiscriminate nature of the attack. The perpetrator casually pedaled down the street on an old bicycle and cavalierly lobbed a grenade into a group of innocent civilians. The blast left two adults and a small child injured. A taxi stopped, collected the wounded and sped off to the hospital. The message was clear; the assailant could just have easily targeted me.

Stephens was preparing to leave Iraq and return to the United States. I was his replacement. My orders were simple: reconstruct the legal system in this southern Iraqi city of almost 400,000. The task seemed daunting. There were approximately 30 judges and 200 lawyers in Diwaniyah province. Many of these were hiding from the coalition and the Iraqi people. They feared reprisal for their role in Saddam’s regime and rightly so. Most of the court officials were absent as well, having fled with most of the courthouse equipment, vehicles and furniture. To complicate matters, court records were destroyed in the spontaneous looting following the liberation of the Diwaniyah. Finally, the magnificent courthouse, which stood for hundreds of years as a testament to the rule of law, stood in ruins. The citizens of Diwaniyah, loosed from the dictator’s iron grip, attacked and destroyed all tangible signs of his reig, including this marvelous structure.

Only weeks earlier, I was employed as a prosecutor in northern Georgia. My days were spent researching, drafting charges, and preparing for court. Ironically, the issue of the day was obtaining funding to replace a badly outdated county courthouse. Our state court system functioned unencumbered by the new dictates of security propelled by the events of 9/11.

I watched the attack on New York City and the Pentagon on television with a clear understanding that my reserve commission might lead to my direct participation in what is now referred to as the global war on terror. The professors who arranged my studies at Emory School of Law roughly two decades earlier could not have foreseen my predicament. Was my legal education sufficient preparation for my mission in Iraq?

Throughout the summer of 2003, I served as the coalition representative to the courts in Diwaniyah. My first task was to convince the judges and court officials to return to work. Initially, they were not satisfied with the facility designated as the interim courthouse. In their opinion, the temporary structure lacked the solemn dignity necessary to foster the practice of law. I constantly reminded them the original courthouse was rapidly undergoing reconstruction by a team of United States Navy Seabees and Iraqi workers.

Next, I obtained and studied translated copies of the Iraqi legal code to ensure court officials complied with a myriad of procedural and substantive rules. Professionally, however, my interest was directed to the Iraqi Criminal Code. I received the translated version directly from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The Iraqi Criminal Code of 1969 defines crimes, defenses and punishments in a fashion similar to any U.S. state penal code. Iraq’s criminal code defines crimes by elements that must be shown prior to the Court entering a finding of guilt against the defendant. For example Paragraph 411 of the Iraqi Criminal Code of 1969 defines the offense of manslaughter as follows:

“Any person who accidentally kills another or causes him to be killed without premeditation so that it is the result of negligence, thoughtlessness, lack of due care and attention, or lack of regard for any law, regulation, or decree is punishable by detention plus a fine or by one of those penalties.”

Nevertheless, Iraq’s statutes bore a certain “Second World flavor.” Paragraph 86 states the death penalty is carried out through “the hanging of the condemned person by the neck until he is dead.” Additionally, I located attorney-related humor in Paragraph 106, which defines “disbarment”:

“Disbarment forbids the convicted person to consume intoxicating liquor in a bar or any other place set aside for that purpose for the period prescribed by the sentence. If any person is convicted more than once for the commission of an offence while under the influence of alcohol or for the commission of some other felony or misdemeanor while under such influence, the court may, at the time of conviction, restrict the convicted person from frequenting bars or other such places for a period not exceeding 3 years.”

Furthermore, I discovered the Iraqi judges and lawyers loved to debate. They were knowledgeable about foreign legal systems and greatly enjoyed criticizing our jury system. “How can you expect untrained citizens to make the correct decisions?”

In Iraq, a panel of three judges tries a person charged with a felony. The evidence is presented mostly through a file prepared by an investigative judge who takes evidence from witnesses and investigating officials. The prosecutor merely reinforces the information contained in the file through oral argument. I almost envied the Iraqi prosecutor’s job upon remembering the hours of preparation required for a simple jury trial and the almost superhuman effort needed to secure the attendance of critical witnesses. The Iraqi defense attorney’s role is to point out to the court omissions in the evidence and the inevitable “good character” of the defendant.

Over the summer, I developed solid friendships with the Iraqi Judges and Lawyers in Diwaniyah. Their Shiite heritage and my Christian beliefs were never an impediment to our mutual respect. Gradually, most of the court officials returned to their pre-war job as word of our work spread through the community. Many of them arrived with the court’s missing furniture, vehicles and a few precious surviving files. Things were beginning to “shape up.” When the new courthouse opened in August, the Iraqi police assigned to guard this facility described their new assignments as “jobs of the highest honor.”

On my final day in Diwaniyah, the Iraqi courthouse contractor and the Chief Judge approached me. They wanted to know if I wanted to name a small rose garden adjacent to the courthouse. I thought for a moment about our accomplishments and my pending reassignment to the “Sunni Triangle.” I said, “Let’s call it the Garden of Peace.” When the words were translated my Iraqi friends began to cry. We all knew that Iraq would see many more days before this hope was realized. Reestablishment of the Iraqi judicial system was a good start but it was only that; a start.

The following day as I rode down the main road leaving town, my unit passed the new courthouse where the Iraqi judges, lawyers and officials would continue the work we initiated together. It occurred to me that my legal education did contribute to the modest success I achieved. I was proud to bring to Iraq the values of the American legal system so abundantly instilled during my three years of study at Emory.

Suddenly my attention shifted to the rose garden. Attached to a wooden post was a hand painted sign which said in English, “Britt Garden of Peace.”

Major William Britt graduated from Emory School of Law in 1985. He received an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Georgia in 1982. He is a Prosecutor in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit and is currently on military duty as a JAG Officer in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.