Inder Comar, a San Francisco lawyer, meets with refugee Sundus Saleh, who is now the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Bush Administration over the Iraq War. Photo provided by Inder Comar.
The United States military may be out of Iraq now for more than a
year, but the Iraq War’s impact still remains.
March 19 of this year marked the 10th
anniversary of the start of the war, the third longest in U.S.
history after the Vietnam War and the War in Afghanistan. While President
Barack Obama spent the day thanking the 1.5 million service members and
civilians who dedicated their time, and the 4,500 Americans who gave their
lives, Inder Comar, principal attorney at Comar Law, took a different approach. He was calling for America to
examine whether the war was legal in the first place.
A week before the March anniversary,
Comar filed Saleh v. Bush, a lawsuit
wherein the plaintiff, Iraqi refugee Sundus Saleh, alleges that key members
of the Bush Administration violated international law by waging war against
Iraq. As a result of the war, she, along with more than 450,000 other Iraqi
refugees in Jordan, and those Iraqis left behind or killed, suffered great
Comar and Saleh met through
WitnessIraq.com, a website Comar created in
December 2012 for victims to share how they had been affected by the war.
“For me, it was an investigative
fact-finding mission into what really happened,” Comar told Hyphen in an
interview in his San Francisco office.
As a citizen, he was curious to know
where his tax dollars had been spent. On a more personal level, Comar had
always been interested in the stories of refugees after hearing stories from
his father, who, as a young man, fled
from Pakistan to India to avoid persecution for being a Hindu during the
From his father, Comar learned how long the psychological and emotional effects of that
kind of experience could last, and the importance of “really preserving a
record.” Otherwise, Comar said, “The stories of that type of trauma die with
Through “classic pound-the-pavement”
networking, WitnessIraq received statements
from Iraqi refugees, including one from Saleh. She told the story of losing
her job, being forced out of her home in Jawlawla, Iraq, by masked troops of
the Kurdish Army (allied with the US), and relocating to Baghdad. Then she was threatened
and later attacked on two separate occasions by Shia Muslims, most likely because she is a member of Sabean Mandean, a minority religious sect that follows John
Saleh didn’t want to take any more chances. She fled to Amman, Jordan,
with her three children, where they now live as illegal refugees.
Saleh caught Comar’s attention. He said
Saleh’s willingness to speak up and take legal action was unusual among most
Iraqis who, after decades of rule under Saddam Hussein, find the idea of taking
a leader to court frightening.
After a few Skype conversations with
the help of a translator, Comar decided to take on the case pro bono, with
Saleh as the lead plaintiff representing a class of “Iraqi civilian victims”
seeking damages sustained as a result of the war (e.g. damages to homes, car). Former President
George W. Bush and other administration officials Dick Cheney, Donald
Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Paul Wolfowitz are listed as the
The basis of
their case is built upon two laws.
First, in order for Saleh, a non-U.S.
citizen, to be a plaintiff in US courts, Comar has invoked the Alien Tort
Statute, a 200-year-old law that allows a foreigner to bring to court any
violations of the law of nations, a special subset of international law. It is traditionally
used for human rights cases.
Second, Saleh and Comar assert the war
waged on Iraq was illegal because it is a “war of aggression.” The war was
planned, they say, without an existing need for self defense, and it was not
sanctioned by the UN Security Council. The same legal principle was used to
convict Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at American University, believes the success of Saleh
v. Bush is slim.
He said the courts have been very
reluctant to second-guess the underlying legality of U.S. wars, especially when
the president is using force with Congress’s blessing, as was the case with Iraq.
“In [the courts’] view, that’s a
question that the Constitution largely commits to the political branches, for
better or worse,” Vladeck said.
For instance, Vladeck explained that
the Supreme Court found “virtually every conceivable way, and some previously
inconceivable ones,” to avoid addressing the legal nature and scope of the
Vietnam War, and that “Iraq was no different.”
The oft-referenced case that challenged
the Iraq War, Doe v. Bush, was
brought to federal court by some soldiers, their families, and a few members of
Congress before the 2003 invasion took place, but it was quickly dismissed.
Vladeck also said US courts tend to
have a general hostility towards suits under the Alien Tort Statute.
In the face of so many challenges, Comar still remains confident.
“I am handling this case, because I
believe I can win it,” Comar said. “The notion that is radical isn’t a legal
notion, the notion that is radical is ‘Hey, this Iraqi woman is taking Bush to
court.’ I’m not asking the court for new law or to overturn anything. I’m
asking the court to apply already existing precedent that has existed from
World War II.”
The case has proceeded smoothly thus far.
On June 13, the court ordered a briefing that will go at least until November. The briefing allows
Comar and lawyers from the Department of Justice, which is defending Bush Administration officials, adequate time to submit legal briefs to
the judge, who will determine whether the complaint should proceed to trial.
Comar is excited for the intellectual
challenges that potential court hearings will bring. He said the most rewarding
experience so far has been his trip to Jordan in May, where he met and conducted
video interviews with Saleh and other Iraqi refugees to help build his case.
The videos also serve to inform an
American public that has largely been kept in the dark about the war’s
aftermath. Comar posted five victim
accounts, including Saleh’s story, on WitnessIraq.
In each interview, he asked what
message the victim would like to share with Americans. Overwhelmingly, they
answered that they want to live in peace and that they are not enemies of the
American people. Saleh, in particular, said she hopes all American mothers will
take care of their sons and daughters – something she felt she was unable to
“I told [the victims] if [Americans] can
know what’s happened to you, they can actually see you, and hear your story, I
think that will affect [their] opinion,” Comar said. “That’s why it was
important to get those stories up there.”
The self-examination, Comar admitted,
may be a painful one for the American government and people, but he believes
the result will be a much healthier and freer society.
“I think a lot of people want to move
on, because they think it will be better not to talk about [the Iraq War],”
Comar said. “That’s not the case. I think it will make it worse, because then
we’ll never learn from our mistakes and more importantly, we’ll never make
right what happened.”
is a freelance writer interested in
telling the stories behind innovation and great ideas. She
previously spent 1.5 years in Taipei, where she learned Mandarin and led a
mobile app project from concept to launch. Before that, she drove media
relations and crafted messages for tech companies and startups at Edelman. She
is a proud Bay Area native.