Monett lawyer served as senior consultant in Iraq

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Monett attorney Stephen Hemphill, who served as Barry County prosecuting attorney for four years, has a personal connection to the Iraq war.

"The White House was looking for a career prosecutor with experience in the Middle East that was willing to go there," said Hemphill, who has been working and volunteering in the Middle East for around 20 years. "I've always said I was selected for my availability more than my ability."

In August of 2004, Hemphill traveled to Iraq as a senior legal advisor for the U.S. Justice Department. From August to July, Hemphill commuted from a hotel some distance from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

On April 9, 2004, as the Iraq militia began its initial uprising attempt, Hemphill began to see changes in Iraq.

"After the uprising, travel changed overnight," said Hemphill. "I was surprised at how quickly security deteriorated.

"There was a period of lock down where we couldn't get into the embassy for 10 days until the military was organized," said Hemphill. "They became well prepared for security risks very quickly."

Hemphill and other consultants were relocated to the U.S. International Zone Military Base, which encompasses four square miles of downtown Baghdad. Hemphill estimates that there were 15,000 Iraqi people, 5,000 military personnel and 2,500 state department and civil contractors living in the international zone.

During the next 17 months, Hemphill served as the senior consultant for the Justice Department at the U.S. Embassy.

"Each morning the senior consultants would sit around a table with the ambassador," said Hemphill. "We went around the table and told the ambassador what had happened in the last 24 hours, what was going to happen and what the response of the United States should be.

"We had security briefings every morning, seven days a week," said Hemphill. "After that it was meetings most of the day."

The justice department is responsible for building and reforming the prison system and training judges in Iraq. The department also oversees the safety of all judges, prison security teams and construction employees, said Hemphill.

"I had a team of U.S. marshals assigned to the department," said Hemphill. "They helped revamp the judicial security, courthouse security and helped train security teams."

Hemphill also oversaw prisoners at the Abu Grav prison.

"Abu Grav is huge. It is a several hundred acres," said Hemphill. "It was built by Saddam, and 130,000 people were incarcerated there."

When military personnel took control of Abu Grav they found operational hangman's nooses inside the prison, said Hemphill. The nooses were reportedly used to hang thousands of men.

"When we took over, we instituted what we believed to be internationally accepted standards," said Hemphill. "We had a maximum of 4,000 civil prisoners in Abu Grav."

When the military needed more room to hold detainees, they took control of half of the Abu Grav prison, said Hemphill.

"We never had abuse on our side," said Hemphill. "The media and Iraqi people didn't differentiate between the two. I felt a loss of credibility over the Abu Grav abuse scandal."

While representing the U.S. in Iran, Hemphill saw a billboard that displayed photos of the Abu Grav abuse.

"We handed our enemies brilliant propaganda. The Iraqi people I was working with were really disappointed and frustrated because they lost credibility also," said Hemphill. "The American image has still not recovered from that and may not ever."

Although Hemphill was disappointed with the military personnel involved in the Abu Grav scandal, he commends the military personnel who worked with the Justice Department in Iraq.

"Of the thousands of military people who have been there and seen the Iraq conditions and are trying to help," said Hemphill, "most of them believe we are doing the right thing.

"I never met a member of the U.S. military that was not fully committed to the mission and fully believed in it," said Hemphill.

After becoming a state employee in Iraq, Hemphill depended on military security to travel around Iraq and therefore dealt with military personnel on a daily basis.

"It was a security risk to travel, everyday, all day," said Hemphill. "In order to visit anywhere, it required a massive military effort to go even five miles down the road. That kept us from doing some of the things we needed to do."

Military personnel provided security on the road and at the international zone, which has only been breached by bombers on one occasion when insurgents bombed and destroyed a cafe and a street bazaar.

"I had the most wonderful military people working with me," said Hemphill. "I was so impressed with the military and equally impressed with the bravery of the Iraqi people."

Hemphill recalled one occasion when he was traveling from Iraq to Kuwait on a military cargo plane. The plane taxied down the runway only to return to pick up four American flag draped coffins.

Although devastating news is often reported about Iraq, only three of 19 providences in the country are war zones, said Hemphill.

"Schools are functioning, shops are open and street cafes are doing booming business," said Hemphill. "Around 99 percent of the people are sick of the violence and have nothing to do with it."

Hemphill's tour of duty as senior consultant for the Justice Department in Iraq ended in June of 2005. Since then, Hemphill has been involved in some international development projects. Next week he will travel to Britain, France and Jordan.

Although Hemphill has no formal plans to return to Iraq as a member of the state department, he would consider participating in short-term consulting there.

"My goal was to give the Iraqi people a foundation in rule of law," said Hemphill. "I did the best I could. I was extremely satisfied with the successes we had, and I was frustrated that we haven't achieved as much as we had hoped for."

Hemphill served as Barry County prosecuting attorney from January of 1999 to December of 2002 and assistant prosecuting attorney from March of 1995 to September of 1997.

Hemphill is a graduate of Monett High School, William Jewell College, Oxford University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

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