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Immunity in Iraq

Baghdad

The Iraqi armed services are likely to target American security companies,  which are widely hated in Iraq, when they lose their legal immunity under  a new agreement between the US and the Iraq.

The main American concession, during prolonged and rancorous  negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would  determine the future military relationship between the US and Iraq, has  been to agree to lift the immunity hitherto enjoyed by the 154,000  contractors of whom 35,000 are private security men.

“The Iraqi forces will follow them with vigor because they are not  popular in Iraq,”said Ahmed Chalabi, the veteran Iraqi politician, in an  interview . “People haven’t forgotten about the  Iraqis who were killed by private security men in Nisour Square.” Security  personnel from Blackwater USA are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians,  including a mother and child, when they opened fire in Nisour Square in  west Baghdad on 16 September last year.

The ending of the immunity of foreign contractors will have serious  consequences for the 142,000 US troops in Iraq who are highly reliant on  them. Mr Chalabi says it is likely that the Iraqi security forces and judiciary  will go out of their way to pursue and arrest foreign security men who  break Iraqi law which they have hitherto flouted.   He also said that the loss of immunity of American contractors would  make US intelligence operations more difficult because private companies  have been used to maintain links with opponents of the Iranian regime  based in Iraq, notably the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. This enables the US  government to deny that it has contacts with such groups.

Mr Chalabi, who recently returned from Iran where he had talks with  Iranian leaders, said “the Iranians are implacably opposed to the deal. It  consecrates America’s massive presence here and threatens their security.  They say this will be a ‘non-security agreement’ and ‘not a security  Agreement’ and they are happy for everybody to know this.” Iranian  hostility would be serious for Iraq since Iran played a central role in  mediating an end to fighting between the Mehdi Army Shia  militia and the  government in the first half of the year.

In an unexpected but important development the negotiation of a US- Iraqi agreement, to replace the current UN mandate for US forces, which is  due to run out at the end of the year, is leading to a resurgence of Iraqi  nationalism previously masked by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict.  Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki embarrassed the White House by  saying for the first time on Monday that Iraq wants some kind of time table  for a withdrawal of American forces included in the present agreement.  The National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie followed this up by  saying: “We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with  [the US] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the withdrawal of  foreign troops from Iraq.”

American officials have tried to present these demands as wholly  conditional on the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces which now  number over half a million men. An Iraqi official supporting a US-Iraq  agreement said: “It will be easier to sell it to Iraqis if it is presented as a  way of getting the Americans to withdraw. We still need them. We could  not cope if, hypothetically, there was an uprising in Basra, an army mutiny  in Anbar or the Kurds unilaterally annexed Kirkuk.”

But important Iraqi leaders have sought to outbid each other over the  last three weeks in criticizing American rights under the SOFA while Iraqi  supporters of the agreement have been largely mute. This suggests that  the position of Republican presidential candidate John McCain that the US  occupation should continue for many years will soon no longer be tenable.  “We should negotiate with the next administration,” said Dr Mahmoud  Othman, the veteran Kurdish politician and MP. “A letter of understanding  will be sufficient for now. If the agreement does not bind the next  administration why sign it? People will think it is being done to help the  Republican party. It has been hurried because this administration wants to  show that it has achieved something. This is obvious.”

Defenders of the SOFA, such as the Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari,  say that the agreement will limit and define American rights in Iraq. The  alternative is to continue with the UN mandate under which US forces can  do what they want. But the negotiations have provoked a nationalist  backlash among Arab Iraqis because it highlights the extent to which  America control their country in future.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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