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Iraq Status Of Forces Agreement Ratified With A Wrinkle

File image courtesy AFP.
by Richard Tomkins
Baghdad (UPI) Nov 28, 2008
Iraq's Parliament Thursday ratified the bilateral agreement between Baghdad and Washington that allows U.S. troops to remain in the country for another three years, but not without last-minute bickering and deal-making among lawmakers.

The Status of Forces Agreement, signed Nov. 16 by US. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, passed after the coalition government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to demands by a Sunni bloc of parliamentarians to put the measure to a national referendum in July.

The exact vote tally wasn't immediately available, but the speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud Mashhadani, said votes in favor were overwhelming.

The SOFA, as it is called, needed only a simple majority for ratification, but Maliki needed a large margin of yea votes for it to have legitimacy with the country's majority Shiite population, whose Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani indicated his acceptance of the accord was dependent on a large margin in its passing.

Now signed by a three-man Presidency Council, the agreement goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Major provisions include:

-- A Dec. 31, 2011, date-definite for all U.S. military forces to withdraw from Iraq. If a national referendum in July rejects the accord the United States would still have 12 months from that date to conduct operations before it leaves the country or another arrangement is reached. Under the agreement either side can abrogate it with 12 months advance notice.

-- A June 30, 2009, date for U.S. troop withdrawal from all bases within Iraq's cities, towns and villages.

-- A pledge by the United States not to use Iraqi territory for attacking Iran, Syria and other countries in the region.

-- A requirement that U.S. forces obtain warrants from Iraqi courts before detaining targeted terrorist suspects or searching homes for suspects or weapons caches except in combat situations.

-- A requirement that all U.S. military operations receive approval from a special Iraqi-U.S. military panel before they can be carried out.

U.S. diplomats say that with ratification new government-to-government and military-to-military talks will begin on how to actually implement SOFA provisions.

Two provisions will have an immediate effect on how the American military does business in Iraq -- warrant-based arrests and searches, and prior operation approval. U.S. military officials say some units of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, in charge of Eastern Baghdad, plan to implement both of them as early as next Monday and have been holding talks with their Iraqi counterparts about how to do so despite the gray areas that remain until higher-level implementation discussions are completed.

"I really don't know how it is going to work out," said Maj. Geoff Greene, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, which operates in East Baghdad. "It (warrant-based targeting) may be a good thing, but we just don't know yet. … But as always: If my chain of command says this is how we're going to do it, that's how we are going to do it and I support it."

Greene said his battalion has already completed information packets for seven to nine terrorist suspects and is working on packets for 11 others. Those packets would be sent to brigade level. Legal officers would then liaise with Iraqi army personnel and obtain warrants from an Iraqi court.

"But we still don't know about situations of probable cause," Greene said. "And we have 200 people on our lists. What do we do about them? Do we get warrants in advance on all of them?"

Green also said another gray area of concern is what happens if troops discover a wanted suspect while checking vehicles at temporary checkpoints or while on foot patrols. Can they detain the suspect until a warrant is issued, or do they let the person go?

Some soldiers spoken to with the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment voiced concern over possible leaks of information that could compromise operations. Others wondered about a possible loss of ability to move quickly against wanted individuals when tips to their whereabouts are received.

"It's one of the concerns we have," an officer who requested anonymity said. "We get information on a bad guy and it may be good for only an hour. We don't have time to go to a judge and get a warrant" if one isn't already in hand.

Warrant-based targeting is not new for U.S. troops, however. Soldiers operating in Muqdadiya in Diyala province earlier this year were conducting warrant-based search-and-detain operations with Iraqi Police and National Police units. The police had gotten the warrants for terrorist suspects from the local court.

The issuing of those warrants involved complainants and witnesses signing court affidavits and appearing before a judge. By doing so, they identified themselves and thus risked retribution from terror suspects and their allies.

Despite that danger, the court in Muqdadiya had some 700 warrants out for alleged extremists, Iraqi Police and U.S. forces in Muqdadiyah said.

The second area of concern is prior Iraqi Security Force approval for operations, such as daily patrols and search-and-knock missions. Lt. Col. Michael Pappal, commander of 1-68, however, said that on the battalion level he didn't see a problem with it. He is in discussions with his Iraqi Security Force counterparts to permanently embed several Iraqi soldiers or National Policemen with his forces to accompany all missions and thus give them the Iraqi government imprimatur that will be needed. Also, he said, many of his battalion's missions -- other than daily routine patrols -- are conducted with ISF participation.

"Last spring U.S. forces were in the lead on larger ops," he said. "Now the Iraqi Security Forces lead."

An example of that came early Wednesday. Two platoons from 1-68, together with 11 units of Iraqi National Police and Iraqi army personnel, cordoned off mahalla 315, a 2-square-kilometer neighborhood in the Shaab/Beida area of East Baghdad. The planning was mainly done by the Iraqis, and Iraqis were the ones who set up most perimeter security and entered homes looking for illegal weapons and seeking information on a suspected al-Qaida terrorist in the area. U.S. forces were merely backup if needed and also had on hand several bomb-sniffing dogs.

The Status of Forces Agreement ratified Thursday was a product of eight to nine months of contentious negotiations between Iraq and the United States. It provides a legal framework for U.S. military operations in the country and replaces a U.N. mandate for them that expires at the end of the year.

Maliki has touted the pact as a symbol of Iraq regaining sovereignty, but it is still opposed by anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has threatened his militia will battle U.S. troops if they remain in the country.

The Sunni demand for a national referendum was one of several made in an apparent effort to gain increased influence in the Shiite-Kurd dominated government, which faces provincial and national elections next year.

earlier related report
Security accord with Iraq is 'success story': White House
The White House on Thursday called the military accord approved by the Iraqi parliament a "success story," saying it reflected how the country had made dramatic progress since President George W. Bush deployed more troops last year to quell violence.

Bush on Thursday congratulated the Iraqi parliament for passing the landmark deal that will see all US troops withdraw from the war-torn country by the end of 2011.

"Today's vote affirms the growth of Iraq's democracy and increasing ability to secure itself," the US president said in a statement. "We look forward to a swift approval by Iraq's Presidency Council."

The deal -- comprising two separate agreements governing the US military presence in Iraq after their UN mandate expires on December 31 -- was approved by a large majority after 11 months of tough negotiations with Washington and a domestic political bargaining.

"Given where we were in January 2007, we have seen an almost unthinkable pace of progress on political, economic and security issues," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino in a statement, referring to the month that Bush announced a "surge" strategy of additional combat forces for Iraq.

"So much so, that the improved conditions allowed us to come to this mutual agreement with a sovereign Iraq that is solving its problems in the political process, not with guns and bombs.

"This is an incredible success story for our military and for the Iraqi Security Forces."

The 2011 deadline should allow US and Iraqi forces enough time to "solidify gains made in the last year," she said.

The Bush presidency has been indelibly marked by the Iraq war, from the invasion spurred by false allegations that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction to the abuses by US troops of Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib jail.

Some 4,200 US soldiers have been killed in the country in a war which has also cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars.

While the unpopular war helped drive down Bush's approval ratings to dismal levels, the White House said that recent events have vindicated the president's approach.

"Because of the president's decision to surge more troops, because Iraqis stepped up and fought back against terrorists, we are now in a position that we can have a long term bilateral agreement with Iraq and most importantly, more US troops can come home with honor after achieving great success that will bring stability to the region and give America a strong ally against terrorism in the heart of the Middle East."

earlier related report
Main points of US-Iraq military pact
Iraq's parliament on Thursday endorsed a landmark military pact that will govern some 150,000 US soldiers stationed in 400 bases across the country.

The 24-page agreement takes effect when the UN mandate now governing the troops expires on December 31. The following are the main points of the deal from the official English version:

Article 4: All military operations undertaken in Iraq must be conducted with the agreement of the Iraqi government and should be "fully coordinated" with Iraqi authorities through a joint US-Iraqi committee. However, US and Iraqi forces have the right to "legitimate self defence within Iraq" as defined by international law.

Article 12: Iraq will have the right to prosecute US troops and associated civilians for "grave premeditated felonies" committed "outside agreed facilities and areas and outside duty status." Should they be arrested however, they must be handed over to US custody for the duration of the investigation and trial, and US forces are responsible for certifying whether the alleged crime took place while the individual was on "duty status."

No such immunity is extended to private security contractors, over whom the agreement grants Iraq the "primary right to exercise jurisdiction."

Article 15: The US military must present Iraqi authorities with a list of all items being imported for the use of the troops or US security contractors.

Iraqi authorities have the right to request that US forces "open in their presence any container in which such items are being imported in order to verify its contents." But Iraq must "honour the security requirements" of US troops and, if requested, conduct the inspections in US facilities.

This does not extend to parcels imported by civilians or to US mail, which will be "exempt from inspection, search, and seizure by Iraqi authorities, except for non-official mail that may be subject to electronic observation."

Article 22: US forces cannot detain anyone, except for its own soldiers and associated civilians, without Iraqi permission, and all detainees must be handed over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours of their detention.

Once the agreement enters into force the US military will turn over all the information it has on detainees being held in Iraq. Iraqi judges will then issue arrest warrants for those they suspect have committed crimes and they will be transferred to Iraqi custody. All other detainees will be released in a "safe and orderly manner," unless otherwise requested by the Iraqi government.

The agreement allows Iraqi authorities to "request assistance" from the United States in arresting or detaining wanted individuals.

US forces will not be allowed to search houses or other "real-estate properties" without an Iraqi search warrant and "full coordination" with the Iraqi government, except in combat situations.

Article 24: All US forces must withdraw from Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011. The pact itself also expires at the end of that day.

All US combat forces will withdraw from "Iraqi cities, villages, and localities" once Iraqi security forces assume "full responsibility for security" -- but no later than June 30, 2009.

Iraq can demand that all US forces withdraw at any time, and the United States can unilaterally withdraw the troops at any time.

Article 26: Regarding Iraq's finances, the agreement recognises the protections granted to the Development Fund of Iraq by an executive order from the US president that prevents the funds from being awarded to anyone who files lawsuits against Iraq. The agreement says the United States will "remain fully and actively engaged" with the Iraqi government with respect to the continuation of the protections.

The United States also commits to helping Iraq secure an extension of UN Security Council protections granted to petroleum and natural gas revenues.

Article 27: "Iraqi land, sea, and air shall not be used as a launching pad or transit point for attacks against other countries."

Article 30: The agreement is effective for three years, but can be terminated by either party with one year's written notice.

The agreement can be amended "only with the official agreement of the parties in writing and in accordance with the constitutional procedures in effect in both countries."

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