- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

BAGHDAD | U.S. forces working in Iraq under rules that formally go into effect Thursday are experiencing both cooperation and difficulties, U.S. officials say.

Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) approved by the Iraqi parliament on Nov. 27, U.S. troops must obtain warrants to arrest Iraqi suspects, except in combat situations.

As first reported by The Washington Times, U.S. troops in Baghdad and Baghdad province have been following the warrant requirement for more than a month. Although 10 warrants have been issued so far in northeastern Baghdad, speed in obtaining others has been a problem.

“We applied for 10 warrants two weeks ago, and we still don´t know what´s happening with them,” said Col. John Hort, commander of the 4th Infantry Division´s 3rd Brigade Combat Team. “If we saw one of those bad guys on the street tomorrow, we couldn´t do anything about it.”

The SOFA replaces a U.N. Security Council mandate that expires Wednesday and gives legal cover for the U.S. military presence and operations in Iraq for another three years. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which bargained hard with Washington to win major concessions in the pact, sees the agreement as a symbol of the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. But for the Americans, the agreement spells an end to unilateral operations and an entry into trickier terrain.

“This agreement represents the complete restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty over this nation by the new government, for better or for worse, and hopefully for the better,” said Lt. Col. Peter Pierce, a legal officer with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. “We can´t fundamentally do things without the cooperation and coordination of the Iraq government.”

Missions such as weapons searches, neighborhood patrols and spot checkpoints once conducted unilaterally will transition to joint operations or require Iraqi approval.

“Security operations will continue; combat operations will continue,” said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, “but they must all be approved by the government of Iraq.

“What you’re going to … see are very few, if any, unilateral operations on the part of the … United States,” he said. “They’ll be joint operations done with the approval of the Iraqi government, with Iraqi Security Forces and highly coordinated. From a procedural point of view, that’s a fairly dramatic change.”

Mr. al-Maliki is to give a nationwide televised address Thursday. He is to speak from the Green Zone, the headquarters for the Iraqi government and the location of U.S. diplomatic and military representatives, which will have fallen under Iraqi security control hours earlier.

At a small ceremony later Thursday at Forward Operating Base Callahan in northeastern Baghdad, U.S. troops will lower the Stars and Stripes and return the building to an Iraqi government agency. The U.S. troops then will move to a nearby facility, which they will share with Iraqi forces.

Under the SOFA, Iraq has legal jurisdiction over U.S. contractors who run afoul of its laws and over U.S. troops who commit serious offenses while off duty and off base. It also will have full control over its airspace.

U.S. combat troops will be required to redeploy to facilities outside cities, towns and villages by the end of June and leave the country no later than Jan. 1, 2012.

Special implementation committees are to work out the procedural nuts and bolts of implementing the accord. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said last week that the Iraqi government was still in the process of forming the panels.

Col. Hort of the 4th Infantry Division said he foresees no problem gaining Iraq´s imprimatur on day-to-day missions or special operations. American troops have been conducting joint operations in Baghdad and across the country for months. In northeastern Baghdad, Col. Hort´s men often have done so with Iraq Security Forces approving the operations as well as taking the lead.

“The partnership is going to be the nucleus of everything,” said a senior 4th Infantry Division officer, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. “And we have already been doing that as long as we´ve been here. … We recognize it´s a partnership deal, and we have set all our pieces in place to ensure we’re working together in one direction.”

The agreement is being implemented at a crucial time for Iraq. U.S. officials report that the level of violence is at its lowest in years — an average of 10 attacks per day, compared with 180 per day a year ago — but also caution that an uptick in violence could coincide with provincial elections at the end of January.

Al Qaeda, although disrupted, continues to pose a threat to security in Baghdad. Col. Hort estimates that as many as 100 al Qaeda operatives are in his area of operation.

Iranian-influenced “special groups,” although lying low, also could pose problems.

On Saturday, more than 20 people were killed in Baghdad by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. An American soldier was killed and an Iraqi Security Force member was wounded by an IED on Sunday.

A major focus of military operations in the Baghdad area has been to deny extremists the wherewithal for violence. According to 4th Infantry Division figures, from early October to early November, more than 1,800 mortars were seized as well as about 50 rockets, 78 hand grenades and 180 pounds of C-4 explosive.

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