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Stalled justice is just one of Ramadi’s woes

Times Staff Writer

Heidar Ajeni would welcome reconstruction of this war-torn city where he has been cooped up in a 12-by-30-foot jail cell with 20 other prisoners for more than two months. He was arrested on murder charges but can’t get his day in court because there is no functioning judicial system.

“They say I killed someone, and they have no proof,” said Ajeni, 22, speaking through the bars of his squalid cell in the basement of a water pump house taken over by Iraqi police. “But there is no judge to hear my case. You can see the conditions I live in,” he said, gesturing toward his cellmates who lay like spoons in their cramped quarters.

Exercise is sporadic and the only food he and the other prisoners receive is leftovers donated by Iraqi and U.S. soldiers who take pity on them.

Iraqi police Capt. Abdul Rahman, who is in charge of the lockup, is sympathetic. The conditions of the jail are unjust, he said. “But after I finish the interrogation, what can I do next? There are people brought here with no evidence, as a result of a family problem or a vendetta. But I can’t release them on my own.... The justice system should move a little faster.”

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U.S. officials worry that keeping Ajeni and 400 other suspects in jail without legal redress only runs the risk of turning them into social misfits or insurgents.

“They had a system in place, but it’s just not operating at all. Judges have legitimate concerns about their security,” said U.S. Army Maj. Ted Houdek, the chief legal officer for the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, in Ramadi.

But alleviating the plight of criminal suspects is only one of the challenges for the U.S.-led reconstruction effort kicking into gear here in the capital of restive Al Anbar province, in western Iraq.

Physically and institutionally, Ramadi is in ruins. An estimated 60% of the city has been damaged by three years of street fighting. Unemployment may be as high as 80%. Services such as water, power, and garbage collection are nonexistent.

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The court system hasn’t functioned since 2005, when terrorists began threatening judges with death.

Despite the bleak panorama, members of a provincial reconstruction team consisting mainly of U.S. State Department officials say the window of opportunity is open to make Ramadi a functioning city.

“Yes, this is the moment,” said Kristin Hagerstrom, a State Department official who leads the provincial reconstruction team here. “The people of Ramadi have chosen our side against Al Qaeda. We must help Ramadi get the rubble cleared, basic infrastructure in, and building started to reinforce that choice.”

Military sweeps this year flushed most Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives and other fighters from the town. A surge in Iraqi army and police recruitment, due in part to raised salaries, has brought relative peace for now. Ramadi is suddenly a “permissive” environment for the third phase of the military’s “clear, hold and build” strategy.

No one underestimates the scope of the task, which is evident to anyone who drives through the city. Ramadi resembles a small-scale version of Berlin in 1945. Whole city blocks have been reduced to rubble by airstrikes, improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions. The government center has been leveled, and heavy armored vehicles that rumbled through the streets have ruptured water mains in scores of places.

“It will take years to get this city back together again,” said Army Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade. “But if we can get basic city services started and money in people’s pockets, we will have accomplished something.”

U.S. reconstruction of other cities, notably Baghdad, has fallen short because of funding and security problems and policy miscues.

A report last month by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an oversight agency, found that eight major projects across Iraq that had been portrayed as success stories, including a medical incinerator, a power station and a barracks, were no longer functioning.

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U.S. officials here agree that an attempt to privatize 200 state-run Iraqi businesses, including a ceramics factory in Ramadi, only worsened unemployment. The privatization process halted subsidies for the factories, resulting in their decline and failure to attract bidders. Half a million workers were left jobless when they closed.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul A. Brinkley, who heads a special economic task force at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is trying to get many of the 200 formerly state-owned businesses in Iraq operating again. The initial priority of privatizing the businesses has been reversed in favor of getting Iraqis back to work by any means possible, even if it involves small state subsidies.

“A huge reason for all the violence here is unemployment,” Brinkley said in an interview in Baghdad. “People have to feed their families. Some are doing it with the $200 they get to plant IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices, he said.

With $5.6 million from the Iraqi government, Brinkley is reopening four factories, including the Ramadi ceramics plant that in peacetime employed 650 workers to make porcelain sinks, toilets and other fixtures. Others slated to reopen include a carpet factory in Baghdad, a bus-and-tractor assembly plant in Iskandariya and an apparel manufacturer in Najaf. All told, 2,500 jobs will be reinstated.

Dozens more factories will reopen by this fall, Brinkley said.

He said he also had coaxed agreements “from every major U.S. retailer” to buy the goods. He declined to name them or disclose details of the deals.

The military headquarters here is also trying to get Ramadi judges to come back to work, to settle the plight of Ajeni and other suspects.

Houdek said a meeting last month between the U.S. military command and 14 local judges “went very well, and we are making real progress towards the resumption of a judicial system.”

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Instead of vague hopes of progress, Ajeni would prefer to get a specific court date.

So would his jailer, Capt. Rahman. “He might be a killer,” Rahman said, “but he is still human.”

chris.kraul@latimes.com


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