Some influential Iraqi legal professionals in exile say the most urgent and fundamental priority for post-war Iraq is the establishment of law and order. The jurists are warning that, without a society based on the rules of law, Iraq may plunge into civil war.

The State Department-sponsored "Working Group on Transitional Justice", which is made up of former Iraqi judges and exiled lawyers, was formed last July in cooperation with the independent Iraqi Jurists Association.

When the group publicly presented its 300 page blueprint for action in post-war Iraq at a panel discussion Wednesday, Tariq Ali Al-Saleh, chairman of both organizations, said the lawlessness in his homeland continues.

"After the operations of murder and looting, now those crimes have [decreased], but now we have revenge, retaliation. And increasingly so, he said.

Mr. Al-Saleh says he believes that, if order is not restored in Iraq within the next few months, a civil war could break out. "Some political forces that are associated with regional powers are purchasing weapons as well as seizing arms leftover by the Iraqi army, and this is an indication that this is just an indication early warnings for a possible civil war," he said.

The American moderator of the debate, Neil Kritz, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, agrees establishing rule of law is crucial to a successful transition in post-war Iraq.

"It's imperative, as we've seen in the discussions today, that focusing on establishment of the rule of law is an urgent priority, not a luxury that can be dealt with sometime [in the future]," he said.

Mr. Kritz said revenge, retribution and civil war are not the only dangers of a social order vacuum. "The longer that [establishing law and order] gets delayed, the easier it is for society to fall apart for organized criminal networks to form and put roots down more deeply, to make it more difficult to establish functioning institutions of governance," he said.

The need for law and order was the working group report's overriding message.

One member of the legal panel, Riyadh Al-Kabban, says the Iraqis themselves consider lawlessness among their most pressing problems. He was a judge in the Iraqi city of Basra from 1977 to 1991. Now, he is a lawyer and legal consultant in the United Arab Emirates.

He said U.S.-led efforts to bring order to post-war Iraq are being hampered mainly by lack of coordination among the U.S. government agencies involved. "So, this is a lack of cooperation, our report in one body and the other report in the other body. So, that is make the process of law and order is delaying it," he said.

The Department of Justice's Beth Truebell says her agency's team has taken the results of the study to Iraq and is working with Iraqi legal professionals on the ground.

"In terms of the assessment that will be done [by the Justice Department], this will be done in conjunction with Iraqi jurists that are in the field, that are in Iraq, now, so this is not being done in a vacuum," he said.

Meanwhile, the Peace Institute's Mr. Kritz cautioned that creating a culture of the rule of law in Iraq and establishing functioning institutions there will take longer than people expect. He said it will take a long-term commitment by the international community to create a stable Iraq.