British hope colonial past can inspire law and order

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The Independent Online

Military lawyers are dusting down the system of law used during the 38-year British mandate in Iraq in an urgent effort to reach a workable interim criminal and civil code before a new constitution and legal system is agreed.

Military lawyers are dusting down the system of law used during the 38-year British mandate in Iraq in an urgent effort to reach a workable interim criminal and civil code before a new constitution and legal system is agreed.

A temporary return to the legal codes, if approved, would apply to the provinces of Maysan and Basra in the south-east of the country, where British forces are responsible for security.

Paratroops from 16th Air Assault Brigade have taken the highly unusual step of jointly manning the five checkpoints at the outskirts of Amarah, Maysan's provincial capital, side by side with Shia militiamen, armed with AK-47s, who took over before Allied forces arrived when senior Baath party members fled more than a fortnight ago.

The British soldiers have also allowed the former police chief to resume his old responsibilities and have coaxed back at least 100 of his 4,000 officers. They have taken up their old uniforms and weapons and are manning traffic points and conducting armed patrols with British soldiers and the Royal Military Police.

The British are seeking to share civil responsibilities with a 21-member regeneration committee made up of clerics, tribal leaders and a handful of members of the former regime regarded as relatively benign.

British officers said that a return to the legal system of the mandate – which ran from 1920 to the 1930s – was one of several options being considered as a way to bring felons to justice and settle disputes.

Major Neil Sexton, of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, said: "We are trying to find some system which is neither that of the Saddam Hussein regime nor pure Sharia law."

One British officer said: "We say to the local leaders, 'when will you start the judicial system going again?'. And they say 'when the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad tells us to'. We say we can't really wait that long."

In a typical case this week, a man was killed at the wheel of his car in the village of al-Qumait after a shoot-out over looting. The suspected killer was arrested at the joint checkpoint and detained by British troops but his fate remains unclear.

The recent history of Amarah and Maysan, a heavily militarised province which saw sustained combat in the Iran-Iraq war, is unusual in that power switched from Saddam Hussein regime's before the fall of Baghdad without the intervention of allied forces.

A line of Russian-made T55 tanks lie abandoned and still in their dug-in positions at 200m intervals along the side of Highway 6, going north out of Amarah. Their gun turrets are still pointing at the main road, testifying to this being – almost – the province the war forgot.

The position of the Amarah police chief, a brigadier general in the regime, was helped when the local police force voted to end its support for the regime soon after the war started. By the time 16th Air Assault Brigade arrived the town, though by no means stable, was apparently no longer in the hands of the regime.

British officers say they are still trying to piece together what happened. But Ali Khazem, an engineering student at Baghdad University who comes from the town, said that Shia militiamen had come in from outlying villages four days before Baghdad fell. He said there had been some firing in the air, that the senior Baathists had fled and the town passed out of the old regime's control in a single night.

Meanwhile, humanitarian needs in the province were clear in al-Qumait, where a crowd of about 70 villagers swarmed round visitors arriving with a British Army patrol, demanding urgent action to restore power and clean water.

Aesa Gabbar Abed, a public servant who said he had not been paid for two months, said: "People are drinking water out of the Tigris because they have no choice and they are getting sick, including children. And the medicines are too old to be effective."

A schoolteacher and graduate of Basra university, who gave his name as Rahim H, said: "People say it is worse than under Saddam. We did not have our freedom but at least we had water and power, and there was no looting. If someone stole, he was shot."

* 16th Air Assault Brigade said they were investigating a possible napalm manufacturing facility south of Amarah.

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