- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

During an unannounced visit to Baghdad yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States and Iraq were “very, very close” to signing an agreement on the future of U.S. military forces in Iraq after Dec. 31. Last November, President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed in principle to sign a new U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (an executive agreement that does not require Senate ratification) by the end of July, but the issue has been delayed by controversy. At a joint press conference with Miss Rice yesterday, however, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stated that the text of an agreement was ready and a draft would be presented today to senior Iraqi officials.

If a good agreement can be reached, it would indeed be a major achievement for Mr. Bush and Miss Rice. A year or two ago, such an agreement would have been inconceivable, but the the troop surge led to dramatic improvement in Iraq’s security situation and made possible for the two sides to negotiate substantial troop withdrawals. Very little concrete information is available about the specifics of a deal, but it appears that the parties have agreed that U.S. forces would be withdrawn by 2011.

Yet a number of provisions that are being talked about raise troubling questions. For example, there is the question of whether American contractors would be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Bush administration “dropped its insistence that American contractors remain immune from Iraqi law.” If that is true, it would be disturbing news indeed. Contractors like Blackwater International have played a critical role in providing security for Miss Rice and other State Department officials. While Iraq has made remarkable progress in many areas since the fall of Saddam Hussein, we have seen too many situations where Iraqi politicians have attempted to score easy political points by criticizing U.S. contractors. The prosecution of contractors in Iraqi courts should be a non-starter, and American officials should be making that clear to their Iraqi counterparts.

A second - and far more important question - is whether U.S. military personnel would have immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. Earlier this week, Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Haj Humood stated that joint committees of U.S. and Iraqi officials would be formed to resolve such issues when cases come up. This point cries out for clarification. Does this mean that American servicemen and servicewomen could be prosecuted in Iraqi courts, under some circumstances - instead of being subject to court martials under U.S. law? Under what conceivable circumstances could American members of such “joint committees” be authorized to vote to have their fellow Americans prosecuted in Iraqi courts, instead of U.S. military courts? Both of these points demand clarification from the White House and State Department.

To be certain, an agreement to withdraw American troops and end the war would be welcome news. But the Bush administration needs to explain precisely what legal protection Americans - military personnel and contractors alike - would be guaranteed under a U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement.

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