MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Like judges anywhere, Mosul’s lead investigative judge is a harried man with stacks of files on his desk and dozens of visitors milling outside his office.
It’s the death threats slid under his door, gunshots fired inside the courthouse and a growing list of murdered peers that mark him out from judicial brethren around the world.
One of 70 judges in the violent northern Iraqi city, he is a top target for assassination by insurgents or others angry with his rulings — a pointer to the challenges Iraq faces as it tries to establish rule of law after years of war and bloodshed.
“I know that at any time I can get killed,” said the 60-year-old, as he sat behind a wooden desk in his courthouse office and rattled off names of fellow judges who had been killed. He declined to be identified for fear of retribution.
“All the judges here get threats. They call me on the phone or send me notes saying, ‘If you don’t release this person, then we’ll kill you or put a bomb in front of your house’.”
In the past month alone, there have been at least four attacks on judges in or around Mosul, said an official from the U.S. provincial reconstruction team, which works with judges.
One judge was struck by a roadside bomb, another shot at in a mosque and gunmen fired on a third as he drove to work. The fourth was shot twice in the shoulder in front of his home, but survived after crawling to safety.
“The foundation of any organized society is the legal system,” said the U.S. reconstruction official, also declining to be identified.
“So the terrorists are out to intimidate the judges.”
All this is par for the course in Mosul, which is among the most dangerous cities in Iraq. There may be fewer suicide attacks, but insurgent groups such as al Qaeda have kept up a deadly cocktail of shootings, murder and extortion.
The city’s diverse population of Arabs, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen means tensions are always high and feuds are common.
Judges have become easier targets since local justices took over Mosul cases from judges visiting from Baghdad.
Keen to ensure Iraq’s fragile judicial system does not come off the rails, U.S. officials are training local Iraqis to serve as bodyguards for judges. But a basic training exercise outside a Mosul courthouse showed how steep the learning curve is.
Four would-be bodyguards surrounded their judge and waved AK-47s about with stern expressions, but recklessly ran over a sandbag and tin bottle — dummies for roadside bombs.
“Half of them had never picked up a gun before,” said Sergeant James Halterman, one of the U.S. trainers. “So I’ve got guys in the shooting range who’ve never shot a rifle before.”
One trainee, Ahmed, 25, had foreseen an even bigger problem.
“We’re not allowed to carry any guns,” he said, complaining that as civilian bodyguards they had no authorization to carry weapons and that the AK-47s on display were just on loan.
“How can we protect anyone without any guns? They’ll shoot us at checkpoints if we carry weapons.”
Insurgents are not the only worry. An Iraqi army officer last week showed up at the Mosul judge’s office demanding he issue an arrest warrant and fired into the air when the judge refused, U.S. officials said.
A more vexing issue longer term is the type of cases that pile up on the judge’s desk daily. About 70 percent of them lack any evidence and many are motivated by personal feuds, he said.
“A lot of the cases are just rubbish or made up for revenge,” said the judge, recounting how one Muslawi, or Mosul resident, tried to get another detained by filing a case against him because both were in love with the same girl.
Editing by Michael Christie and Louise Ireland