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Post-2011 Military Presence in Iraq Falters on Question of Immunity

A few things have become clear about the post-2011 Iraq operation for US military forces. First, the Iraqi leadership wants a training force to stay in the country to help Iraqi security forces, particularly the air force and border patrol.

Second, they want that training mission to be totally confined to Iraqi bases, and they are unwilling to grant any US forces in the country immunity from prosecutions for any violations of Iraqi law. This was a key, if not they key, element of the negotiations on a post-2011 presence. And the flat refusal from the Iraqi government has the US side scrambling.

U.S. officials have scrambled this past week to redraw a 2012 military training plan after Iraqi leaders announced they would not grant immunity to troops who remain past the Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal.

Since Tuesday, when Iraqi leaders formally requested that U.S. military training continue into next year, military and diplomatic officials in Washington and Baghdad have been sketching alternative proposals that could place training in the hands of private security contractors or NATO, entities that can be legally covered some other way.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta stipulated Thursday that any remaining U.S. troops must have immunity. A State Department official said Saturday that while Iraq is not likely to budge on its resistance to military immunity, there are other paths to continuing the U.S. training mission in the country.

“We both have a vision that coincides on the need for military trainers,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the sensitive negotiations. “The U.S. government is working out what our vision of legal status options are that we will live with. The U.S. government has not yet presented that to the Iraqis. They may accept it. They may not.”

This may be how the Iraq War ends, over the denial of a grant of immunity. I’d say private security contractors are far more likely to fill in than NATO forces, because all NATO countries save for the US have pulled out of Iraq, and member states would likely face a huge backlash if they put their imprimatur on a training mission there. A base confinement strategy, furthermore, would make these troops sitting ducks for a Beirut-style bombing, as the Sadrist forces still reject any presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil after December. So I could see officials with the US defense companies selling Iraq billions in military equipment and fighter jets training the Iraqis before NATO. And possibly now, before the US military, given this development.

It’s certainly possible that US negotiators can twist arms and change minds among the Iraqi leadership on the immunity issue, but I’d consider it highly unlikely. Between Abu Ghraib and Nissour Square and everything in between, another atrocity without consequences for US personnel would collapse public confidence in the government. Or maybe some arrangement is made with the training happening in Kuwait rather than Iraq. And anyway, the State Department will have a massive presence in Iraq, in a sprawling embassy with 16,000 civilian personnel – including a 5,000-man private security force protecting traditional diplomats and aid workers, several hospitals, a 46-plane air service and THEIR OWN TRAINING STAFF teaching Iraqi security forces how to use the military equipment they just bought. And this is actually scaled down from the previous plan, due to a smaller set of funding from Congress.

So maybe the question of whether the US will get out of Iraq after 2011 is misplaced. Through the State Department, there will still be a virtual fortress stocked with enough personnel for an Army division. And I’m sure there will be many segments of Iraqi society displeased with that continuing occupation, whether or not the Defense Department supplements the presence.

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David Dayen

David Dayen