Report from Iraq: Columbians Serve in a Variety of Roles

Report from Iraq

The son of Iraqi immigrants, Haider Hamoudi '96 arrived in Iraq in July 2003 with the aim of establishing a law firm to provide domestic legal expertise to foreign investors. He quickly decided that this project was premature. The uncertain and dangerous conditions in parts of Iraq have discouraged foreign investors from entering the country.

"The needs in Iraq are so acute that to return to the country to make money while the country remained in this shattered state did not seem to me like a worthy goal," Mr. Hamoudi says. "Private ?work is fundamental to the restoration of a civil ?society, but there are certain other needs that must take priority over it at this time."

Last fall, Mr. Hamoudi shifted his focus and accepted a position with a project of the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The project's aim is to reform Iraqi law schools. He now works with three universities in three different regions of the country to enhance law school curricula and resources to prepare students for practice in a new legal system. His specific assignment is to establish clinical legal education programs.

Mr. Hamoudi

"The goal is to give Iraqi law students some practical experience in the way the law operates, as opposed to the exclusive focus on the theoretical and academic aspects of the law to which they are currently exposed," he explains.

Mr. Hamoudi is one of several Columbia Law graduates in Iraq this past year. Placing themselves in the aftermath of a war zone, they have used their legal expertise in a variety of ways throughout the country. They have seen the challenges facing the Iraqi people and offer valuable perspectives on the current situation and the legacy of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Hamoudi is the son of parents who came to the United States to study medicine. He did his undergraduate study at MIT. Prior to coming to Iraq, he worked in the Hong Kong office of Debevoise & Plimpton.

As an Iraqi-American fluent in Arabic, Mr. Hamoudi is able to move between the worlds of Americans administering the country and the Iraqi people. While he is optimistic about the country's long-term future, he is troubled by the worsening security problems.

"The security situation is terrible and feels like it is getting worse by the day. While other aspects of life have improved considerably - schools, courts, hospitals function now where they didn't before - security is one area where there does not seem to be improvement....Most importantly, it tends to disconnect those Americans who are here to temporarily administer the country from the masses of Iraqis whom they are administering. Their contact with Iraqis tends to be very limited, through no fault of their own."

Mr. Hamoudi also has concerns about the success of the Iraqi Governing Council.

"The problem is that while the ethnic and sectarian divisions are not going to burst into war in my view, they do still exist in large part," he says.

The Gover-ning Council reflects the make-up of a society divided by ethnic backgrounds and religions, as will the government that is eventually formed. Mr. Hamoudi sees this as a potential cause of conflict and corruption.

Nonetheless, he intends to remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. "I cannot explain why I felt a duty to come here. I have never considered loyalty to a piece of earth, as opposed to a set of ideas that a country may seek to represent, as being entirely rational. It is an affair of the heart as much as the head."

Brett McGurk '99 was appointed by the Department of Defense to serve as a legal adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Working with the general counsel to Ambassador Paul Bremer, Mr. McGurk has been involved in establishing a legal framework to combat public corruption, making commercial law reforms, and assisting in the transition to a representative government. He also has taken a role in providing legal advice for the drafting of the interim constitution.

Mr. McGurk

Mr. McGurk was doing appellate litigation at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., when, during lunch with a friend, he learned of the opportunity to work in Iraq. He took a leave of absence and will be in Baghdad until July, departing a few weeks after the scheduled transit-?ion of authority from the coalition to the Iraqis.

Mr. McGurk's work in Iraq is informed by the strictures of international law.

"Some of those strictures were created almost 100 years ago, which makes for a challenging and fascinating workload," he says. "Interestingly, from my limited perspective, there is often a greater sense of binding legal authorities here than I found when I clerked on the Supreme Court for Chief Justice Rehnquist, where there rarely appeared to be ready answers from established law."

During his time in Iraq, Mr. McGurk has seen a country divided between those working for reform and those resorting to violence.

"On one side are Iraqis who believe in human progress and dignity, working every day to reclaim a government that abused and tortured so many for so long. On the other side are individuals who see no value whatsoever in human life. They fill ambulances with bombs and murder scores of innocents standing in a line."

There is no question that the American presence can make a difference in this time of transition, he says.

"There is incredible progress here every day. The Iraqi Governing Council is building enduring institutions to combat the vestiges of corruption and terror that characterized the government in Iraq at every level for 30 years. There is no other entity like this in this region; it represents the full spectrum of political thought in Iraq, from Islamists to Communists, from Sunnis and Kurds to Shiites, Turkmens, and Christians. The seeds of a civil society are sprouting here. I wish a stateside audience could see it."

Olivier Bercault '00 LL.M., a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, traveled to Iraq in April 2003 as part of an emergency team charged with assessing crimes committed under Hussein's government and documenting the conduct of both sides in the war. He spent a month in the country just after the official end of the war, traveling in both the north and south.

Mr. Bercault

"The situation was overwhelming," Mr. Bercault recalls. "We were the first human rights organization to enter the country in 20 years. We put a sign on our car in Arabic that said ‘Human Rights Watch' and people stopped us everywhere, running up to tell us about a brother or father who had been arrested and disappeared. The government would take photos of those they arrested being tortured and then send them to their families as a threat. People showed us these photos. They had to talk. They had to tell us their stories."

A native of France, Mr. Bercault joined Human Rights Watch after getting his degree at Columbia and has spent most of the past four years attempting to prosecute Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, for torture and crimes against humanity. The indictment against Habré, currently in process in Belgium, is the first of a former head of state in Africa for crimes against humanity. Prior to his work with Human Rights Watch, Mr. Bercault worked with refugee populations in France and Russia.

Mr. Bercault took a break from the Habré case to travel to Iraq, where he focused on documenting the sites of mass graves of Hussein's victims. One of the most serious problems encountered was the disruption of these grave sites by relatives digging for remains. Mr. Bercault and his team worked to secure the sites and asked U.S. Coalition forces to address the problem. Still, the situation he found in Iraq was highly chaotic, with weapons caches lying in the open and Shiite Iraqis in the south outraged over the looting taking place.

Once the country is more secure, Mr. Bercault believes that a truth and reconciliation commission is needed to address the abuses of the past.

"The former top ranking officers of the Hussein regime should be prosecuted," he says. "This would be very useful for the country."

Melissa Epstein '00 was deployed to Iraq in February with the Judge Advocates General Corps of the Marines. She is based in Al Anbar province, which extends west from Baghdad to the Syrian border and north to Mosul.

Becoming a Marine was not in her life plan when Lt. Epstein graduated from Columbia, but two key experiences prompted her to consider enlisting. She was working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, D.C., when she took a leave of absence to clerk for Judge Andrew Effron at the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. After her clerkship, she extended her leave from the law firm to work as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

"During my clerkship and my subsequent year in The Hague, I met a number of outstanding Marines who really made an impression on me, and the idea of becoming a Marine took hold," Lt. Epstein says. "At the end of the day, it was less like making a decision and more like answering a calling. I liked Gibson for what it was, and the money was nice, but ultimately it was not how I wanted to spend my life."

Lt. Epstein spent six months in basic training as well as attending Officer Candidate School and Naval Justice School, where she learned the fundamentals of military justice, legal assistance, and operational law. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, she reported to her first command at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and was detailed as a prosecutor before heading to Iraq.

"The exact nature of the work I will be doing is pretty fluid at this point," says Lt. Epstein. "If we have the capacity to run courts-martial, I may prosecute criminal cases against Marines who get in trouble. If history is any guide, cases that come up will run the gamut from petty offenses to military-specific offenses to rape and murder."

Since this is the first occupation undertaken by the United States since World War II, Lt. Epstein also anticipates handling questions regarding occupation law along with possible war crimes investigations and work with the local judiciary and governing councils.

"Beyond the traditional legal work, there are convoys to be led, platoons to be commanded, patrols to be conducted. Because of the Marine Corps credo that every Marine is a rifleman, these tasks are fair game for all Marine officers, even lawyers. Given that we are where we are in Iraq, I am proud to be a Marine, grateful for the opportunity to serve, and excited about the chance to work with the Iraqi people toward building stability in their country."

Last fall, the magazine reported on the work of Col. Matthew Bogdanos '83 in the investigation and restoration of several thousand items and artifacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq during the fall of Baghdad. Col. Bogdanos, a Manhattan-based homicide prosecutor and marine reservist, returned to the United States in March after his investigative team was disbanded.

Of the estimated 13,500 artifacts stolen, more than 4,000 pieces have either been voluntarily returned, recovered in the country, or seized at international borders.

"Just seeing the stuff is really remarkable," Col. Bogdanos told the Guardian. "The recovery of a single piece - the oldest recovered bronze bowl in bas relief, or a single pot with burned red ochre on it - that's worth it."

A trained classicist with degrees from Columbia University in classical antiquities, Col. Bogdanos has remained committed to the effort to recover the missing items - many dating back to the genesis of metropolitan life, the development of written language, and the world's first laws. In meetings and conferences with government officials, military experts, and antiquities specialists, he emphasized the need for continued assistance from the international law enforcement and art communities in the hunt for these precious artifacts.