The headlines from Baghdad may be filled with violence and mayhem, but Sermid Al-Sarraf sees a different Iraq beginning to bloom: a land where Americans and Iraqis are working together to restore independent courts, reform the penal code, and train judges and lawyers in human rights and international law.
Al-Sarraf, a Southern Californian and son of Iraqi immigrants, currently on leave from his job as an attorney for the city of Los Angeles, is part of an ambitious venture that pairs U.S. and Iraqi universities to reform and modernize legal education.
Working with DePaul University College of Law's International Human Rights Law Institute in Chicago, Al-Sarraf and his partners say their work represents a glimmer of hopeful change that has largely been shrouded by the relentless spate of bad news from Iraq.
"No matter what people think about how we got into the war, we have a legal and moral obligation to leave a society that is secure and stable," he said in a recent interview during a brief return home from Iraq this month.
"It's a long journey for Iraq to build civic institutions that can protect people, but we've made significant inroads," he said.
One success came when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority agreed to reverse a policy instituted by Saddam Hussein and separate the courts from the executive branch. The move, which was decreed last year and began to take effect this year, restored judicial independence in Iraq for the first time in more than two decades.
U.S. officials at first had been concerned that changing Iraq's government structure unilaterally would violate the Geneva Convention, Al-Sarraf said. He successfully argued that it was Hussein who had violated international law by eliminating the independent judiciary in the first place.
When his argument prevailed, Al-Sarraf said, he sent off an exuberant e-mail to his four children back home in Sunland. "This is an example of how one voice can make a difference," he wrote.
That upbeat message is echoed by Majid Alanbaki, an Iraqi University law professor who works with Al-Sarraf.
"The progress has been excellent," Alanbaki said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.
"Because of the embargo on Iraq during the last 10 years, we lost contact with the outside world and became backward. This has been a golden opportunity to catch up with everything we've missed."
Still, pitching democracy, legal reform and human rights in Iraq is not always an easy sell. Some Iraqis have pointedly questioned whether Americans practice what they preach.
David E. Guinn, executive director of DePaul's law institute, refers to the recent scandal over mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners and asks: "How do you teach human rights with Abu Ghraib?"
"It's a challenge, because this administration has been so cynical about international law," Guinn said.
In addition, some Iraqis are leery that the largely secular legal reforms pushed by Al-Sarraf and his colleagues will squeeze out reliance on Koranic law, according to Alanbaki. Other Muslims, who largely opposed the war, are ambivalent about their Islamic brethren who assist U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"I support Sermid and agree that it's better to do something positive than be frustrated," said Sarah Eltantawi, a Muslim activist in Southern California. "But I think he'll be criticized by the community for not talking about the horrors enough.... I don't see [his actions] as conspiring with the occupiers, but of course that sentiment exists."
Despite such concerns, Al-Sarraf, 40, sees the chance to aid the liberation of his ancestral land as the fulfillment of a lifelong quest.
In the 1980s, he started a newsletter to publicize Hussein's atrocities. In the 1990s, after attending UCLA and UC Berkeley, he went to Whittier Law School to equip himself with skills to advocate the overthrow of the regime in Iraq.
Now, with fluent Arabic and family connections -- his uncle is Iraq's equivalent of the chief justice of the Supreme Court -- Al-Sarraf aims to meld Islamic values and U.S. democratic traditions to help lay the legal foundation for a new Iraq.
A soft-spoken man with a closely shaved beard, Al-Sarraf says his passion is shaped by his family's history. His father, a physician, left Iraq to study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1962 and stayed in the West to escape the national tumult after the Baath Party took control of Iraq a year later. A cousin was executed by the Hussein regime for alleged affiliations with a banned opposition group; other relatives were killed in war. His uncles were professionally sidelined for refusing to join the Baath Party, he said.
Al-Sarraf was born in Washington, D.C., and largely raised in Canada until 1978. That's when the family decided to return to Baghdad in response to government calls for Iraqi professionals to come home and help rebuild the nation. He attended Baghdad College as a classmate of Hussein's older son, Uday, whose ruthless killings were already being whispered about among students, Al-Sarraf said.
The family lasted in Baghdad only two years. The senior Al-Sarraf had repeatedly rebuffed attempts to enlist him in the Baath Party and landed on the government's list of professionals targeted for forcible retirement. In August 1980, he quietly arranged for his family to leave for Canada. The family eventually came south and settled in the Glendale area.
Al-Sarraf's opportunity came three years ago, when he was invited to participate in a U.S. State Department project to plan for the nation's post-Hussein future. His working group produced a voluminous report recommending postwar laws, which built on Iraq's extensive legal tradition.
The region Iraq inhabits produced the world's first formal set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, 3,750 years ago. According to DePaul's Guinn, Iraq boasted one of the most progressive constitutions in the Mideast in the early 20th century and was a key exporter of laws and legal education, along with Egypt.
"These are not barbarians wanting to shed blood," Al-Sarraf said. "These are people with a legal tradition that far outdates our own."
But such progressive traditions came to an end in 1958, Alanbaki said, when a military coup toppled the constitutional monarchy. They were further corrupted by Saddam Hussein, who eliminated the independent judiciary after taking power in 1978, Al-Sarraf said.
Hussein added death penalties for more than 100 new crimes, including publicizing information without authorization and deserting the army for a few days. And he jailed those who tried to apply the rule of law impartially.
In the last year, however, Al-Sarraf and others have quietly worked to purge the criminal code of Hussein's amendments and restore the judiciary to an independent position.
Al-Sarraf also has worked to draft new laws regulating the thousands of property claims pouring in from those whose homes were unlawfully seized by Baath Party officials during the last few decades. Settling those grievances peacefully will be a key test of the rule of law, he said.
Most recently, Al-Sarraf has worked with DePaul's program, which is funded by a $3.8-million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to help Iraqi universities modernize the nation's legal education.
The lawyers say the curriculum is frozen in time, reflecting no new legal developments of the last decade and none of the international trade and commercial laws necessary as Iraq shifts to a market economy. Many of the libraries were ransacked by looting.
So far, Al-Sarraf and others are encouraging their Iraqi partners to add curriculum materials on human rights and international trade, reduce class sizes and develop students' bilingual skills. They have allocated half the budget to renovating burned-out buildings and filling them with modern law books, computers, faxes and other improvements.
But Al-Sarraf said the team hopes to offer more than legal skills and physical improvements. They are nudging their Iraqi colleagues to take a more active role in building the nation's civic culture by publicly speaking out about issues.
Many of the older professors shy away from such roles, conditioned by decades of Hussein's repression, Al-Sarraf said.
Recently, he asked Iraqi lawyers whether they planned to weigh in on plans for the new constitution.
"If asked, we'll give our opinion," one replied.
"And what if you're not?" Al-Sarraf countered.
"Our role is to promote their ability to speak out forcefully and peacefully as voices in a new civil society," he said.
Al-Sarraf opposed the war, calls U.S. policies in the Mideast atrocious and declares he will not vote to reelect President Bush. But he said such political disputes do not belong in the debate over rebuilding Iraq.
"I want to make sure my grandchildren have positive interactions with people in Iraq and around the world," he said. "If we fail to leave behind a stable country that respects the rule of law, we will suffer from it for the next 100 years."