Inside the Chaos of Iraq and Pakistan

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cliff Wardlaw steps into foreign courts

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2009 magazine

By Anna Befort on March 1, 2009


Cliff Wardlaw will never forget sitting in the Red Zone’s Baghdad Hotel when it was suddenly stormed by a Shiite mob. Or watching lawyers riot the streets of Islamabad during former President Pervez Musharraf’s standoff with the Pakistan Supreme Court. Or the bomb blasts outside his bedroom window.

Unlike his father, a Marine who served in Vietnam, Wardlaw’s stories didn’t begin with the military. They began with a posting from the Department of Justice in 2003 announcing it was looking for attorneys to work overseas. Intrigued, the assistant U.S. attorney from Minneapolis responded right away. By March 2004, he was on his way to Baghdad to help rebuild Iraq’s judicial system.

The move was, of course, a marked shift for Wardlaw, who went from being a tribal liaison prosecuting crimes on American Indian reservations to spending long days working to re-establish the Iraqi court system. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Iraqi system was just a shadow of justice, says Wardlaw, with secret courts and the threat of arrest and torture if judges didn’t comply with government wishes. An independent judiciary needed to be established, and the courts needed to be cleansed of Baath loyalists.

To update the court system, Wardlaw helped set up training for Iraqi judges, which meant finding Iraqi and other Arabic-speaking experts to lecture on international law and human rights. “We were very, very careful not to try to introduce American legal concepts, because the Iraqi legal system is a civil system, it’s not a Western accusatorial system,” he says. “We were careful not to say, ‘This is what we do in America; you should do it here.'”

Another step sounded simple but proved crucial: helping the judges and lawyers connect with the outside world. “The Iraqi judges had been cut off for 35 years—they couldn’t buy books, they didn’t have Internet access, the Baathist government wouldn’t let them travel,” he says. When Wardlaw would go into a judge’s chambers, he’d find only one book: the Quran. So he launched an effort to buy a set of Iraqi legal books for every judge’s chambers in the country. With funds donated by foreign governments, he helped purchase books that would explain the country’s criminal code, civil code and family relations code, as well as lay out international human rights law.

Even with these improvements, everyday life was far from easy for judges in Iraq. Insurgents targeted courthouses and judges, especially Shiite judges. Wardlaw worked often with a young Shia judge named Qais Hashim Shameri, whom he admired for his
talent and competence. Though only in his 30s, Shameri had become one of the country’s top judges. But not long before Wardlaw left Iraq, Shameri and his son were killed in an ambush outside a Sunni mosque. It was hard to come to terms with the loss of good men like Shameri who were working to rebuild the country.

Still, Wardlaw was proud of the work they were doing in Iraq. Aside from insurgents, he insists that many Iraqis were happy to have the Americans there. “They were very grateful to us that Saddam was gone,” he says. “I would have women dressed in traditional garb come up and grab my hand and start kissing my hand, and my interpreter would tell me, ‘She’s thanking you for getting rid of Saddam. Thank you to the Americans.'”

It was a reciprocal relationship. In areas of Baghdad, Wardlaw thrilled in visiting 1,200-year-old churches. In Dahuk, a Kurdish province in northern Iraq, he attended a Mass at a 1,700-year-old parish. “The Mass was said in Aramaic, and so I was sitting there and the translator was telling me, ‘This is Aramaic. That’s the language of Jesus.’ Hearing the Lord’s Prayer in the exact same words that Jesus spoke was pretty incredible,” he says.

When Wardlaw returned to Minnesota in February 2005, he resumed his job as an assistant U.S. attorney, but wanted to go back. “It was the experience of my life,” he says.

He requested another assignment to Iraq, but the Department of Justice asked if he’d consider Pakistan instead: the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad had reached an agreement to have its first resident legal adviser. Wardlaw was up to the challenge. By September 2006, he was on a plane to South Asia.


One year later, stationed in Islamabad, Wardlaw picked up the latest Newsweek. The cover photo showed a crowd of protesting students clad in white, carrying signs with anti-American slogans. “The Most Dangerous Nation in the World Isn’t Iraq,” read the headline. “It’s Pakistan.” He recognized the scene right away. The event occurred right by the Red Mosque—not far from where he lived.

During his nearly two years in Pakistan, Wardlaw had a front-row seat to history in the making. He was blown out of bed at 3 a.m. by bomb blasts during the siege of the Red Mosque. He watched from the rooftop as Pakistanis rioted after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. And when the Danish embassy was bombed after Danish newspapers reprinted controversial Muhammad cartoons, it blew Wardlaw’s back door open just a few blocks away.

“The security situation in Pakistan got worse when I was there,” he says. It wasn’t just the Taliban and al-Qaida throwing things off kilter. Widespread corruption, separatist movements and controversial presidential elections added to the instability. When President Musharraf suspended the country’s chief justice in March 2007, the lawyers started rioting in the streets. “I would be driving in Islamabad and have to divert around the Supreme Court because the lawyers were jumping the fence and storming the Supreme Court,” he says.

That unrest made it difficult for Wardlaw to work on legislative issues and judicial training. Lawyers were boycotting the courts. Judges who refused to take the oath were dismissed. Lawyers who did show up for court might be assaulted, even killed, by other lawyers. Little was getting done.

That was the theme of Wardlaw’s time in Pakistan. Although one of his main projects, a money-laundering bill related to terrorism financing, did pass while he was there—but only by executive ordinance under the threat of sanctions—many things were left undone.

“It was frustrating, because the civil unrest and the political unrest in the country prevented us from really getting a program put together,” he says. “The court system didn’t function probably for three-quarters of the time that I was there due to boycotts and arrests.”

While Wardlaw grew frustrated with the inefficiencies and corruption, he found bright spots on a personal level: interacting with his caddie, Shakeel, at the Islamabad golf club; visiting Lahore, his favorite Pakistani city; and forming the kind of deep friendships that can grow out of trying situations.

Back in his office overlooking downtown Minneapolis, Wardlaw still keeps in touch with the friends he made in Iraq and Pakistan, sending care packages and exchanging e-mails. But he’s happy to be home. “I think I’m done with the overseas stuff,” he says. “I’ve spent almost three of the last five years over there. I’m glad to be back.”

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