BAGHDAD, Iraq – Judge Zuhair Al-Maliky signed an arrest warrant two months ago for Riyad Mahoud, governor of Maysan province (search), over the murder of a police chief. But Mahoud is still at large, as are nearly 20 other high-ups, wanted on charges ranging from murder and kidnapping to fraud and illegal possession of government property.
In postwar Iraq (search), still under reconstruction and lashed by a widening insurgency, it appears the long arm of the law just isn't long -- or willing -- enough.
The post-occupation era is less than two months old -- and clearly it will take more time to marry institutions established by the Americans to the new bureaucracy that Iraq's interim government is trying to create. The Central Criminal Court was part of the departing U.S. occupation's legacy, and has Iraqi judges, lawyers and clerks. But the government, keen to assert its independence from Washington, appears to be slow in executing its warrants.
The Maysan governor is one example. Another is Ahmad Chalabi (search), a former Governing Council member and one-time Pentagon favorite, who is wanted on counterfeiting charges. But Chalabi's case has turned out to be far from simple.
After his arrest warrant was issued 10 days ago, Chalabi announced he was returning from Iran to Baghdad to clear his name. Far from preparing the handcuffs, Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi begged him to stay away until the situation was resolved. Less than 24 hours later, the Interior Ministry announced it would temporarily suspend the warrant.
So where do things stand now? Al-Maliky, a Baghdad University-educated lawyer and Iraq's chief investigating judge, said it wasn't his job to follow up -- "It should be the job of the executive authority, the Ministry of the Interior."
But Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim offered little help, going as far as to cast doubt on the central court's legitimacy because it was established under the occupation.
"We are not responsible for what has happened under the occupation," he said.
"The situation is confusing," he acknowledged. "But we won't do anything arbitrarily. That's the difference between a government that's prepared to wait, and one that is a dictatorship."
The Central Criminal Court is supposed to be a showcase product of the democracy President Bush has promised Iraqis, and U.S. military officials bristle at any attack on its legitimacy.
"It's an Iraqi court, under Iraqi law, using Iraqi legal procedures, handing down a number of criminal convictions, resulting in individuals being placed in Iraqi prisons, or acquitted, whichever the case may be," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson from the Office of the Deputy Commanding General for Detainee Operations.
"We certainly feel this is a relevant court representing the will of the people of Iraq, and we are respecting the decisions it makes when it finds people not guilty."
The court began operating in June 2003, the month after Saddam Hussein's regime fell. It has two branches -- one for cases involving Iraqis only, and another for Iraqis involved in attacks against coalition forces. In the latter, it has convicted and sentenced dozens of suspects and has an acquittal rate of about 27 percent, the U.S. military said.
Of the warrants handed down by the court against high-profile figures, only one has led to an official being jailed -- a Finance Ministry officer tried on terrorism charges. A former Governing Council member suspected of murder was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The governor under an arrest warrant is from the southeastern marshlands and is suspected in the murder of Majal Kabir, a police chief, but no details have been given out.
Chalabi claims the court is waging a personal vendetta against the Iraqi National Council, the organization he ran abroad while exiled by Saddam. Al-Maliky has issued 17 arrest warrants "for individuals who happen to be associated with the INC," he said.
Watching the court operate, the clear impression arises that cases involving attacks on coalition forces are being fast-tracked. The U.S. military helps shepherd these to a quick resolution while civilian cases, especially those involving political personalities, go on the back burner.
Soldiers testify, or their recorded testimony is played to the court even if they have left the country, and the military is quick to publicize every conviction. Meanwhile, Judge Al-Maliky signs warrant after warrant for political personalities and these are ignored by the Interior and Justice Ministries.