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Feature: Iraq's milestone for new year

Inside the Parliament of Iraq
by Richard Tomkins
Baghdad (UPI) Dec 29, 2008
Iraq reaches a crossroads and a milestone in its post-Saddam history Thursday when it takes full authority and responsibility for the nation's security from American forces.

Iraq in the new year can approve, rein in or squelch U.S. combat and security operations; Iraq will decide who can be detained for suspected terrorist offenses; and Iraq can try to jail U.S. troops who commit serious offenses while off base and off duty.

It will decide what U.S. bases must be closed come June 30.

The instrument for the change is the Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad that gives legal cover for continued U.S. presence in the country until 2012, when all U.S. troops must be withdrawn, and which fundamentally changes the way those troops do business until that date.

"Security operations will continue; combat operations will continue," Brig. Gen. David Perkins, director for strategic effects, said at a recent news briefing. "But they must all be approved by the Government of Iraq.

"What you're going to … see are very few, if any, unilateral operations on the part of the Coalition, the United States. They'll be joint operations done with the approval of the Iraqi government, with Iraqi Security Forces and highly coordinated.

"From a procedural point of view, that's a fairly dramatic change."

The Status of Forces Agreement, part of a larger U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement, was approved by the Iraqi Parliament at the end of November after bitter wrangling among Iraqi lawmakers and months of hard negotiations between Washington and Baghdad. It replaces an expiring U.N. Security Council mandate.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki considers the agreement a tangible symbol of Iraq regaining national sovereignty.

Maliki will stress that when he appears on television Thursday morning in a scheduled nationwide address. He'll speak from the International Zone (Green Zone), the headquarters for the Iraqi government and location of U.S. diplomatic and military representatives, which will have fallen under Iraqi security control hours earlier.

Later in the morning a small ceremony will be held at Forward Operating Base Callahan in northeastern Baghdad. U.S. troops will lower the Stars and Stripes and return the building to an Iraqi government agency. They will then move to a nearby facility they will share with Iraqi forces.

"This agreement represents the complete restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty over this nation by the new government, for better or for worse, and hopefully for the better," said Lt. Col. Peter Pierce, a legal officer with the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. "We can't fundamentally do things without the cooperation and coordination of the Iraq government."

Special implementation committees are to work out the procedural nuts and bolts of putting all the provisions into effect. But Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, said last week the Iraqi government was still in the process of forming the panels, although it's only a matter of hours before the agreement's provisions take effect.

U.S. troops in Baghdad and Baghdad province have already begun following two provisions with immediate impact on how they do business. Since November soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division have been deciphering the Iraqi legal system to locate judges with the authority to issue probable-cause detention warrants on suspected terrorists and verify the evidentiary criteria needed for those warrants.

The Iraq Security Forces that U.S. soldiers partner with regularly have been acting as go-betweens in the process. As a result, 10 U.S.-sought warrants have been issued so far in northeastern Baghdad. They have also shared more than 60 of their own warrants with the Americans.

Since Dec. 1, U.S. troops in Baghdad have been following the warrant requirement.

Speed in getting warrants, however, remains a problem.

"We applied for 10 warrants two weeks ago and we still don't know what's happening with them," said Col. John Hort, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. "If we saw one of those bad guys on the street tomorrow we couldn't do anything about it."

Hort said he foresees no problem with gaining Iraq's imprimatur on normal day-to-day missions or with special operations. U.S. troops have been conducting joint operations in Baghdad and around the country for months. And in northeastern Baghdad, Hort's men have often done so with Iraqi Security Forces in the lead and U.S. troops playing a support role.

"The partnership is going to be the nucleus of everything," a senior 4th Infantry Division officer said. "And we have already been doing that as long as we've been here. That's in effect, whether it has been joint security stations in the city or drills with the ISF. We recognize it's a partnership deal and we have set all our pieces in place to ensure we're working together in one direction."

The agreement comes at a crucial time for Iraq. U.S. officials report violence is at its lowest ebb in years -- an average of 10 attacks per day compared with 180 per day a year ago -- but also caution about a possible uptick in violence coinciding with provincial elections at the end of next month.

Al-Qaida, although disrupted, continues to pose an immediate threat to security in Baghdad, they said. Hort estimates 100 or fewer al-Qaida operatives are in his area of operation. And Iranian-influenced Special Groups, although also disrupted, could also pose problems.

How Iraq handles the security situation for the elections is crucial, and U.S. and Iraq Security Forces have already been assessing security precautions to be implemented.

But that's just one hurdle in the year ahead. Questions of how effectively Iraq will handle the near- and long-term threats of extremists can't be answered yet. Iraqi Security Forces have come a long way in their confidence and effectiveness in dealing with terrorists, but not all units are equal in ability. Speed in dealing with threats is also an issue. With Iraqi Security Forces still suffering from logistics shortcomings, they'll often need to depend on U.S. forces for mission transportation and communications.

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Iraqi presidency approves non-US foreign troops resolution
Baghdad (AFP) Dec 28, 2008
Iraq's presidency council on Sunday approved a parliamentary resolution allowing the presence of non-US foreign troops in the country after the expiry of a UN mandate at the end of the month.

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