The number of US soldiers in Iraq continues to decrease – this week, it’s down to around 30,000 and counting. Meanwhile Iraqi officials continue to debate exactly who will stay on to train the Iraqi military forces that are still in need of assistance in a number of fields, as well as whether those trainers will be able to get the immunity that the larger number of US troops could not.
Previously the two parties reached an impasse over the Iraqi decision not to grant the US soldiers immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. Many countries that host a significant US troop presence have similar “Status of Forces” agreements (also known as SOFAs) which, among other things, specify foreign troops’ standing under local law: everything from taxes to import laws to criminal and civil legislation. But SOFAs can also be controversial. Often these agreements stipulate that the foreign nation’s soldiers be trialled back in their homeland, if they commit a crime. But the host nation can get upset about this, especially when what they see as crimes committed by the other country’s soldiers go unpunished, or are not adequately punished back home.
This is the sticking point that led to US President Barack Obama’s announcement that US troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year. And it continues to be a sticking point as Iraqi and US officials discuss exactly who will stay on in Iraq, what they’ll be doing and how.
Iraq still suffers from internal violence, with conflicts continuing along sectarian and ethnic fault lines. There is also concern about incursions by neighbouring nations, such as Turkey and Iran, into Iraq. Turkish and Iranian forces often enter northern Iraq because they say they are chasing armed insurgents fighting against their own governments, who hide in these border areas. As a result of all of these issues, Iraqis consider that their military forces could do with more support and training.
“The need for military trainers is mainly related to technical issues, and related to armaments and weapons,” Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the parliamentary committee on security and defence and an MP for the State of Law political bloc led by current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said. “Most of the armaments contracts in Iraq have been concluded with US companies, particularly those related to the air force and to tankers - so Iraq needs to be trained on how to use these US weapons.”
Iraq’s politicians are currently discussing three different options.
The first option would see US troops continuing to train a smaller group of Iraqi military, but in a third country – most likely Jordan. That small group of experts would then return to Iraq and train further Iraqi troops.
The second option is to have the NATO trainers in Iraq continue on with that task: this group is made up of around 160 individuals from NATO countries and its mission began in 2004. Unlike the far larger number of US-led forces, the NATO group has not been part of combat operations in Iraq and earlier this year, it was agreed that the NATO group would extend its mission in Iraq beyond the original deadline of 2011 up until the end of 2013.
Meanwhile the Sadrist political bloc, led by outspoken Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who has been very vocal about his opposition to the US presence in Iraq, has suggested a third option: having the ongoing training of Iraqi forces undertaken by one other country instead. According to a statement issued by the Sadrist bloc, either France or Russia might well be willing to undertake this task.
“We have been in contact with a number of European countries, including France and Russia, about training the Iraqi army and two nations - France and Russia - have expressed their willingness to do so, in principle,” a statement from al-Sadr’s office said.
However the Sadrist bloc, which plays a significant role in the coalition government currently in charge in Baghdad, said it would also be happy with any of the three options. Having Iraqis trained by US forces outside of Iraq would still mean the end of major US presence on Iraqi soil. And having Iraqis trained by NATO forces would ensure it was not just a US-led training effort. “We support any option which ends the US troops’ presence in Iraq,” an MP with the Sadrist bloc, Rafea Abdul Jabbar, confirmed to NIQASH.
The major political opposition group, the Iraqiya list which is led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, appears to hold a similar opinion. “And the final decision depends on what agreements can be reached between the different political blocs,” an Iraqiya bloc MP, Abdul Karim al-Hattab told NIQASH.
An MP from the State of Law Alliance,Mohammed Sadoun al-Sayhoud, confirmed that his colleagues were happy to consider all three options too. But, he added, that for them, “the most probable option at the moment is having a group of Iraqi military trained by US troops in a third country.” The State of Law’s second choice would be having the NATO mission train Iraqi military alongside trainers who could be contracted, depending on contracts with weapons suppliers.
Critical independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, told NIQASH that his bloc in Baghdad, the Kurdish Alliance, supported granting any US military who remain as trainers immunity. “Considering how the security situation is deteriorating, the absence of an air force and an army that is not ready to protect the borders, the withdrawal of these [US] troops will leave Iraq on the brink of the abyss,” Othman argued.
“Iraq has bought weapons and equipment from the US worth billions and there is a need to train the army on the use of this equipment,” Tariq al-Hasemi, one of Iraq’s two vice presidents and a member of the Iraqiya political bloc, told media at a press conference in Baghdad. “All of the political blocs agree that the Iraqi army needs to be trained; there is a national consensus on this. However, the issue of immunity still needs to be resolved,” he warned.