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Dr Musa A Keilani: They request to obey orders
October 18, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The Iraqi government has confirmed that it has officially requested to the US to maintain 5,000 American soldiers in the country beyond the Dec.31 deadline, but only for the purposes of training Iraqi forces to use newly purchased equipment.

Baghdad says that the issue is outside the purview of the status of forces agreement with the US that governs the current presence of more than 46,000 American soldiers in Iraq and therefore the current terms of reference, as contained in the status of forces agreement that expires on Dec.31, 2011, will not apply to the trainers.

Senior US military commanders say that they have been studying the issue and that negotiations with Baghdad are continuing.

At issue here is the US insistence that the American trainers in Iraq should have immunity from prosecution for crimes committed outside the training bases. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta insists on blanket immunity for US soldiers.

Iraq says that there is no need for such immunity since the trainers would be operating only within the bases.

The conflicting positions have given rise to concerns that the US intends to use “the trainers” as combat soldiers whenever it deems fit to do so and the Baghdad government would have no say in the issue.

Washington does not want a withdrawal of all of its soldiers from Iraq in the foreseeable future. It would like to have enough military presence in Iraq for intervention if and when the need arises. One of the key concerns of the administration of US President Barack Obama is the growing Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.

Opposition to US military presence in the country beyond the Dec.31 deadline is led by Iran-backed Iraqi groups, prominent among them the Sadrist movement led by Shiite religious leader Moqtada Sadr who even rejects even US trainers for Iraqi forces.

The Sadrists are also waging an internal campaign to pressure the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki over welfare programmes.

Without the Sadrists, who hold 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament under a deal brokered by Tehran, the Maliki coalition would collapse.

The behind-the-scene US-Iranian tug-of-war and resulting tensions threaten to take a worse turn in the wake of American charges that agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had hatched a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington. Tehran has dismissed the charge out of hand. However, the Obama administration has vowed to step up pressure on Iran, which is under a series of sanctions, by the UN, the US, the European Union and other Western allies over its controversial nuclear programme.

The latest tirade between Tehran and Washington will have its manifestations in Iraq since Tehran would use its influence in the country to counter US moves designed to add to Iran’s isolation.

That would only worsen the deteriorating internal security situation in Iraq. Hundreds were killed and wounded in a series of bomb and small arms attacks this month. Many of the victims were security agents and the attacks took place in mostly Shiite neighbourhoods, and, although there was no claim of responsibility, the key suspect was Al Qaeda, which vowed to carry out 100 attacks as revenge for Osama Bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan in May.

The attacks forced the Iraqi government to put off withdrawing soldiers from cities.

On Wednesday, Iraqi militants fired rockets at US forces in Maysan province near the border with Iran, wounding three and the US was quick to issue a response blaming Iran.

US officials claimed that the unidentified assailants had received training from the Al Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

US military commanders asserted that the attack was part of a broad conspiracy designed to “achieve their greater aims,” which are to keep Iraq isolated.

The US has limited options in Iraq whereas Iran, which does not consider itself to be bound by the international code of conduct which it views as imposed by the West, has no such constraints. It is free to play the game as it finds fit and there is no way the US could force it to accept the rules of the game. Washington will definitely crank up pressure on Tehran against the backdrop of the alleged plot to kill the Saudi envoy to the US and the Iranian response will be in the form of manipulations in Iraq aimed at keeping the heat on the American soldiers there. Shiites might be killed in the bargain, but that need not be a constraint on Iran since Al Qaeda is blamed for all attacks on Shiites anyway.

The largely unknown factor here is how the minority Sunnis feel about the course of events in their country, Clearly they have realised that they would be kept only on the fringes of power in post-Saddam Iraq and would even face total cut-off when the Americans depart. And if the majority Sunnis assume power in neighbouring Syria, where a revolt is raging against the regime, then all bets are off for both the US and Iran since no one would be able to predict the impact on the region of such an upheaval. Then it will not really matter whether American soldiers have immunity in Iraq since the whole game will be scrambled.

THE AUTHOR A FORMER JORDANIAN AMBASSADOR, IS THE CHIEF EDITOR OF AL URDUN WEEKLY IN AMMAN.
 

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