Newly-recruited Iraqi army volunteers attend a training session on June 20 in the southern city of Basra. (Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP via Getty Images)
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The U.S. and Iraqi governments are revisiting the controversial issue of legal immunity for American troops, the key sticking point that prompted a complete withdraw of troops in 2011.
As the Pentagon prepares to send up to 575 new troops into Iraq, officials say, talks are underway with the Iraqis to clarify the legal protections for service members working outside the U.S embassy.
“We are pursuing something in writing,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.
“The secretary is absolutely committed to making sure that our troops have the legal protections. He would not do that on a nod and a wink.”
“We are in constant contact with the Iraqi government about these arrangements and these personnel,” Kirby said.
The deal would not be an official status of forces agreement, but would ensure that troops deploying there now will be able to use lethal force in self-defense and not risk ending up in an Iraqi courtroom or jailhouse. The Defense Department wants written assurance that “if an incident happens, that that individual has due process through the military justice system,” Kirby said.
In 2011, U.S. military officials said Iraq’s refusal to approve a proper status of forces agreement that included legal protections for service members was the primary reason the U.S. withdrew all of its troops at the close of the eight-year war. While many Iraqis in 2011 opposed offering legal protections to U.S. troops, Kirby said the current deal under discussion is different and more limited.
“What we were talking post-2011 was a fairly sizable force of American troops that would remain in Iraq for a long period of time. What we are talking about here is a very small number, up to 300, whose mission will be of a limited duration,” Kirby said.
The issue arose after President Obama said Thursday that he would send up to 300 “military advisers” to Iraq to work alongside the Iraqi security forces. Their mission will be to gather intelligence about the conditions on the ground and assist the Iraqis in their fight against extremists’ militias.
Those troops would come in addition to the 275 troops that Obama said may be needed to provide security for the U.S. embassy and the roughly 5,000 people who typically work there. Some of those embassy personnel have been relocated due to security concerns. About 170 troops were sent to the embassy last Sunday and U.S. Central Command has put on standby an additional 100 troops who specialize in flight support and airport operations.
Insurgents from an al-Qaida offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, have seized several large cities in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north and west. With a force estimated to include several thousand fighters, ISIL is now facing stiff resistance from the Iraqi army in the towns on the far outskirts of Baghdad.
The new U.S. military advisers may be moving outside of Baghdad to work with Iraqi army commanders at the brigade level. But Kirby emphasized that they will not be fighting alongside Iraqi troops.
“They are not there on a combat mission,” he said. “In order to help the president make future follow-on decisions, we have to have more information about what is going on on the ground.”
“That is what they will be doing and that is all they will be doing,” Kirby said.
Since 2011, a small contingent of U.S. military personnel, about 200, has worked inside the embassy. Those are essentially administrative jobs and troops serving in those billets fall under the legal protections provided to diplomatic personnel. However, the new military advisers on their way to Iraq will have separate legal protections.
Several dozen of those new advisers will be going into Iraq soon and the U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over legal protections will not delay their arrival, Kirby said.