BAGHDAD | Some U.S. troops in Iraq could begin applying for warrants before detaining terrorist suspects or searching Iraqi homes as soon as Dec. 1 -- a month before they might become required to do so under a new status-of-forces agreement.
Military sources, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic, said at least some units of the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad would begin obtaining warrants from Iraqi legal authorities next month before making arrests or searching homes for weapons caches and other contraband in noncombat situations.
U.S. military officials would not confirm or deny the report.
According to the sources, discussions have been held between some U.S. military officials and their Iraqi counterparts on procedures the soldiers will have to follow to get the warrants. Thus far, no guidelines have been issued, the sources said.
"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. "I don't know how to get them yet," he said of the warrants, adding that he expects to "receive guidance soon."
The need for warrants is stipulated in the status-of-forces agreement signed this week in Baghdad by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. The accord, which has yet to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, would provide a three-year legal framework for a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. It is to go into effect Jan. 1, when a United Nations Security Council mandate presence expires.
Warrants are a key provision of the agreement. Currently, U.S. troops do not need Iraqi permission to search homes or detain Iraqis. Under the agreement, they would still not need warrants if they are in the midst of a battle.
The Iraqi Cabinet approved the accord earlier this week after eight months of negotiations and last-minute wrangling over Iraqi demands for amendments, including a provision that would preclude U.S. combat forces from staying in Iraq beyond Dec. 31, 2011.
Iraq's fractious parliament has yet to approve the measure, but a vote could come as early as Monday. At least three blocs in the parliament are opposed to the accord. Among them is one composed of lawmakers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is thought to be in Iran.
U.S. diplomats say passage of the agreement would mark the start of new talks between the two governments and military officials over implementation.
Some of the other main provisions of the agreement include: withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from cities, towns and villages by the end of June; Iraqi approval for U.S. military operations; and the barring of the United States from using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring countries.
Some American officers have expressed concern that requiring warrants for searches and detentions, even in noncombat situations, could lead to information leaks that could compromise operations. Others have wondered about a possible loss of ability to move quickly against wanted individuals when tips about their whereabouts are received.
"It's one of the concerns we have," said an officer who requested anonymity. "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."
Warrant-based targeting is not entirely new. Earlier this year, U.S. troops operating in Muqdadiya in Diyala province conducted warrant-based search-and-detain operations along with Iraqi police. The police got the warrants for terrorist suspects from the local court.
To get the warrants, complainants and witnesses signed court affidavits and appeared before a judge. By doing so, they identified themselves and risked retribution from terror suspects and their allies. Despite that danger, the court in Muqdadiya issued about 700 warrants for people thought to be extremists, Iraqi police and U.S. forces in Muqdadiyah said.
Warrants in the Baghdad area could be obtained by Iraqi security forces from the Ministry of Interior. Whether U.S. forces and their Iraqi counterparts could obtain standing warrants for "most wanted" terror suspects is unclear.
Maj. Rob McMillan, operations officer with 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, said any early start of the mandated warrant searches would help identify problems in procedures.
"This is the Army and we like to practice things," he said.