Tacoma assistant U.S. attorney to head DOJ operations in Iraq

Tacoma assistant U.S. attorney to head DOJ operations in Iraq
Phil Lynch, an assistant U.S. attorney, stands next to a map of Iraq, Friday, Dec. 14, 2007 in his office in Tacoma, Wash.
TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - An assistant U.S. attorney whose day job is defending federal hospitals from medical malpractice claims will soon find himself in a very different role: heading the Justice Department's operations in Iraq.

Phil Lynch, 56, has been appointed to a one-year stint as "rule of law coordinator" in Baghdad, meaning he will oversee efforts to advise judges, lawyers and police in Iraq's nascent, overwhelmed legal system. It's a tall order in a country where judges and their families live behind 12-foot blast walls and thousands of detainees are held without charges.

"We in the United States know if someone's arrested they're going to go in front of a judge who's going to make a decision about whether they should stay incarcerated," Lynch said. "Iraqis don't have that tradition. ... When the population of Iraq understands that the judges will follow the law and apply it equally to everyone, we believe that will have a tremendous impact on ending the insurgency."

Lynch, a West Point graduate who spent 20 years in the Army before joining the U.S. attorney's office in 1993, knows what he's getting into. He previously spent six months in Iraq working with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys handling the trial of deposed leader Saddam Hussein.

Why go back? He said he's fascinated by the development of Iraqi society - in particular, the court system - after 30 years of oppression.

As of last summer, the Justice Department had more than 200 employees and contractors in Iraq, according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Those include FBI personnel who help investigate high-profile cases such as assassinations; Drug Enforcement Administration officials who give courses in analyzing intelligence; and lawyers who advise the Iraqi High Tribunal, which has jurisdiction over war crimes.

Though Lynch said he could not discuss specific cases he might work on, his appointment could facilitate one investigation being conducted by the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle: the shooting death of an Iraqi guard at the prime minister's compound in Baghdad one year ago. According to government reports, the shooter was a Seattle man then working for the security contractor Blackwater Worldwide.

"The Department of Justice could not have found a better person to lead this important office," said Seattle U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan in a statement released Monday. "Phil Lynch is a gifted lawyer who has served the people of Western Washington for many years in the U.S. attorney's office, and before that served his country with a distinguished military career in the U.S. Army."

While acknowledging criticism the United States has faced for its own handling of prisoners captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lynch said he will focus on the common ground between the U.S. military and the Iraqis that should allow for speedier handling of cases. The detainees and their relatives want them to have their day in court, and the U.S. Army wants the trials to occur before its soldiers - who in many cases are key witnesses - leave the country. A top goal, he said, is reducing the number of people being held in pretrial detention without charges.

Lynch spent two weeks in Iraq this month with Jim Santelle, the Milwaukee assistant U.S. attorney who has spent the last 22 months as rule of law coordinator. There's been a notable decrease in gunfire and attacks since Saddam's trial, Lynch said, but security details are still required, it's still enormously difficult to investigate and prosecute crimes in a war zone, and "it'll be interesting to see what happens when the surge ends."

About a year ago, Lynch said, he and his family got a lesson in why the work is important. An Iraqi judge's 14-year-old daughter needed surgery, and the Army brought her to Madigan Army Medical Center near Fort Lewis.

"For my family, getting to know her made it easier to understand why I wanted to go back," he said. "She probably would have died. Now, she's rollerblading in Baghdad."