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Iraqi Government Approves Use of Martial Law

Measures to include curfews, detaining suspects, electronic eavesdropping and mail surveillance

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times/ July 8, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Responding to public clamor for security, Iraq's interim government Wednesday empowered itself to impose martial law on a region-by-region basis to aggressively combat insurgents.

The interim government enacted a National Safety Law to give Prime Minister Iyad Allawi broad powers to impose curfews, detain suspects and engage in electronic eavesdropping and mail surveillance in order to disrupt militants' movements and confront the insurgents. The law, more limited than had been expected, also allows for the freezing of assets of anyone suspected of "conspiracy, insurgency, armed disobedience, armed unrest, killings and bombings."

Allawi did not immediately make use of the law, which would be applied to specific, localized insurgency problems rather than in a blanket, nationwide approach.

"We hope that we won't be forced to use it," Allawi told reporters Wednesday night. A positive sign, he said, is that Iraqis are cooperating with the interim government in efforts to track down insurgents because "they understand now the truth about these attacks and their aims."

Iraq's justice and human rights ministers insisted that the option of imposing the measures in no way signaled a return to the brutal tactics of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and his outlawed Baath Party.

"We have tried to guarantee justice but also to guarantee human rights," Justice Minister Malik Dohan Hassan said of checks and balances written into the law.

He said the government reluctantly took the step of authorizing emergency measures because insurgents had intimidated state employees, deterring relief and reconstruction work and were "in general trying to derail general elections."

Many Iraqi citizens, cowed by 15 months of fierce armed resistance that has killed thousands of their countrymen, hailed the emergency measures as necessary to crack down on those sowing instability. Some called for an even more iron-fisted approach to crushing the insurgents.

As the government was unveiling the law at a news conference inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, gunmen engaged Iraqi police and U.S. forces in a firefight on a busy central Baghdad street -- a timely reminder of the violence cited as the reason for instituting the measures. U.S. Apache helicopters buzzed the battle scene, firing at an apartment building to which the attackers fled. Four Iraqi national guardsmen died in the exchange of gunfire and at least two policemen were wounded. Earlier in the day, mortars struck near Allawi's home and his Iraqi National Accord party headquarters in Baghdad.

Under the martial law provisions, the prime minister would be authorized to appoint a military governor to restore order in a restive region and prohibit public events and demonstrations.

The measures are to be in effect until new leaders are chosen to replace the interim government, in an election on or before Jan. 31. The elected government will have the authority to invoke its own methods of containing insurgents.

The law expressly prohibits use of the emergency provisions to delay the vote, stating that Allawi's government is obliged to ensure "appropriate security conditions to hold free democratic elections" as prescribed in an interim constitution. Allawi had alluded last month to the possibility of postponing general elections beyond the January deadline if security in the country deteriorated. He has more recently pledged to stick to the voting schedule, but inclusion of that provision in the emergency law was a relief to those who feared it could stall Iraq's democratic transition.

The ministers who spelled out details of the law insisted that it was approved solely as a precaution.

"We haven't decided when or where to impose it, but we have the law available to us now," said Human Rights Minister Bakhtyar Amin.

The law permits Allawi to impose restrictions to deal with unrest and violence but only with consent of the president, the two vice presidents and a majority of the 26 Cabinet members. In "extreme exigent circumstances" individuals can be detained without a warrant issued by a judge but in any case would have to be brought to a courtroom within 24 hours of arrest. Declarations of a state of emergency can run no longer than 60 days or the duration of the threat, whichever is shorter.

"The lives of Iraqi people are in danger. They are in danger from evil forces, from gangs, from terrorists," Amin said.

Referring to the bloodshed, kidnappings and attacks on pipelines and power stations by insurgents trying to undermine the aims of the government backed by U.S.-led military forces, Amin said the potential curbs on individual liberties were regrettable but that "life is the main concern, the most important human right."

Amin said the measures were "very similar to the Patriot Act of the United States" and other antiterrorism measures taken throughout the world in the wake of the September 2001 attacks in New York and the Pentagon that claimed more than 3,000 lives.

To guard against abuses of power, the Iraqi Justice and Human Rights ministries are to collaborate in seating an oversight body to review government decisions imposing emergency security measures and to investigate any alleged excesses.

"This is a new Iraq and that will not be allowed to happen," Amin said of the summary jailings and judgments that occurred during the Hussein Saddam era.
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