BAGHDAD, April 2003 (Reuters) – For anyone who thinks the current lawlessness in Iraq is a bit of exuberance with little long-term importance, veterans of Balkan stabilisation missions have some advice: Think again.

If you don’t get law and order right at the start – even, some say, at the cost of a delay in nurturing democracy – little else will flourish later, experiences in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic all show.

Many of those territories learned that lesson the hard way. Some looting and score-settling may be inevitable straight after armed conflicts. But former Yugoslavia shows that unless there is a swift and firm clampdown, a general culture of impunity quickly develops which is much harder to eradicate.”

“We made a big mistake here and made a big mistake in Kosovo…and that was not to realise that the rule of law comes first. We thought democracy came first,” Paddy Ashdown, Bosnia’s international peace chief, told Reuters in Sarajevo last week.”

“We gave this country as many elections as they could (hold) and thought that was making progress,” he said. “You can’t have an operating democracy if there isn’t the rule of law, you can’t have a decent economy, decent politics.”

“My recommendation is: from day one, the moment the bullets stop, you start asserting the rule of law,” he said of Iraq. “If you don’t, the vacuum you leave will be filled faster than you can imagine by the forces of criminality and corruption.”

That vacuum can be serious where the iron grip of an autocrat and his system of control is released almost overnight. In Bosnia, police still require international supervision more than seven years after the war’s end. Experts still grapple with judicial reform. Many investors have decided to stay away until the law is clear and they know that it will be enforced.

Kosovo comes to mind

For people who remember post-war Kosovo in 1999, present-day Iraq can be depressingly familiar.

Smoke rises from looted buildings in Baghdad as it did in Pristina from the homes of minority communities targeted by majority ethnic Albanians seeking vengeance for Serb repression.

The Shia community of southern Iraq is fighting vicious internal battles just as factions among Kosovo’s Albanians have pursued their own deadly feuds.

Kosovo’s post-war United Nations administration was reluctant to impose foreign judges and prosecutors. It let local lawyers try to handle the chaos. Many months later, the U.N. admitted this was a major mistake and called in foreigners.

For some international officials, the lessons are clear and should have been learned by now – governments must have police officers and legal experts ready to go in right after soldiers.

“When you send a military into that situation, you must have at least a police component,” said Dennis McNamara, a senior official at the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR who served as a deputy head of U.N. administrations in Kosovo and East Timor.

Peace in a package?

McNamara argues that governments who send forces into another country should have “justice packages” ready to deploy. Otherwise, “you get the thugs with the guns setting up their own systems very quickly which is very hard to undo,” he told Reuters from Geneva in a telephone interview.

The packages should include not just police officers and lawyers but all the backup they need to be effective – such as administrators, interpreters and prison officers.

In Kosovo, arsonists who targeted the homes of ethnic minorities were arrested but had to be let go because of lack of prison space, McNamara recalled.

That kind of commitment sits uneasily with the U.S. promise, welcomed by Iraqis, to pull out of Iraq as soon as possible.

The Balkans bears all too recent scars from failures to establish law and order years before. On Monday in Kosovo, gunmen shot dead a man who testified for the prosecution in a trial which convicted a former rebel commander of murder.

A four-year-old boy was wounded in the attack, the second to kill a prosecution witness from the trial.

Many politicians who ousted Milosevic in Serbia shied away from fighting the mafia which had burgeoned under his rule. Last month, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was killed by a gunman believed to have been acting on the orders of a mafia clan.

The death of the man behind the toppling of Milosevic was a timely reminder of the dangers of failing to establish law and order after Saddam’s fall.

(Additional reporting by Nedim Dervisbegovic in Sarajevo)

(c) Reuters News