BAGHDAD | Implementing a key provision of the new status-of-forces agreement governing U.S. military operations in Iraq is proving a challenge in persistence and patience for soldiers who have begun following the mandate ahead of the accord´s official start.
Under Article 22 of the bilateral pact, U.S. troops beginning Jan. 1 must have court-issued warrants before they can detain terrorism-connected suspects in noncombat or non-imminent-danger circumstances.
The same holds for entering and searching homes for illegal weapons and other contraband.
That part is clear. What isn´t clear, and what´s causing members of the 4th Infantry Division´s Prosecution Task Force (PTF) teams to burn the midnight oil are fundamental issues such as how to obtain the warrants, from whom and with what kind of evidence — basically divining the procedural nuts, bolts and mechanisms of implementation, which can vary from district to district and subdistrict to subdistrict in Baghdad.
“Our job, first off, is to figure out how the system is supposed to work in obtaining a warrant,” said Maj. John James, a PTF team leader from the Division´s 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
“We engage with the Iraqi judges, engage with the judicial investigators, with the police, with the Iraqi army to see what venues [to get a warrant] work, what avenues of approach are going to work for us.
“Things have not been codified at the highest levels of the Iraq government on down … but we´re making our way ahead.”
The 4th Infantry Division, nearing the end of a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, conducts U.S. military operations in the Iraqi capital and throughout Baghdad province. In October, officials decided the division would implement warrant-based detentions and searches on Dec. 1, a full month ahead of the effective date of the then-unfinalized status-of-forces agreement that would replace an expiring U.N. mandate governing the U.S. presence in the country.
PTFs were established and began working their way through labyrinths of ambiguity in cooperation with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Investigating judges with the authority and willingness to issue terrorism-related warrants needed to be identified and contacted, and evidentiary criteria needed to be ascertained.
U.S. PTF officers said that most judges, fearing revenge targeting by extremists, don´t want to be seen meeting with U.S. military officials, so contacts in most instances have been facilitated by Iraqi Security Forces personnel acting as go-betweens.
Some judges contacted so far require just one detailed witness statement as part of an evidentiary packet; others require two or more. Some will accept just fingerprints lifted from an unexploded bomb, for example, as cause for a warrant. Others will accept it only as part of a larger packet of evidence.
Indeed, providing the evidence is the most time-consuming aspect in warrant-based targeting.
“A major difficulty is getting the kind of evidence that we can give to Iraqi judges to look at,” said Maj. Rana Wiggins, a 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) legal officer. “We can´t give them any classified information” to protect intelligence sources and methods.
“But there are people out there who know, who see things. Of course, they are afraid and not coming forward, but that´s something we can work with the ISF on, getting out there, getting the word out that we’re looking for information on a particular person.”
Cooperation between U.S. troops and their Iraqi counterparts is proving invaluable in filling the evidentiary void. The ISF´s on-the-ground intelligence contacts help identify suspects, help track down witnesses and obtain statements and help witnesses appear before judges for questioning as required.
Maj. Wiggins said several warrants already have been issued since U.S. troops gave warrant packets to Iraqi police or soldiers with whom they normally work, and those units then ferreted out witnesses and found additional evidence needed before giving the packets to judicial authorities.
At present, 3rd BCT soldiers have more than 60 warrants in hand. At least 10 are warrants U.S. officials applied for through their Iraqi counterparts, and more are in development. The rest are legacy warrants — those the Iraqis obtained earlier and that can be used by U.S. troops. Among those on the list are “most-wanted” operatives in the Baghdad area of al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shi’ite “Special Groups,” such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Getting identities and personal information on the suspects isn´t a haphazard affair. Soldiers working with PTFs spend hours checking and cross-checking photographs and other biometric details if available against U.S. and Iraqi files; they check and cross-check names, the spelling of names - a perpetual problem stemming from Arabic-English transliteration - and pseudonyms so that they have thoroughly accurate identification in warrant requests.
Yet despite the successes being achieved in the process, some U.S. troops who must adhere to the new stipulations expressed some confusion and even frustration.
The need for warrants “means we should go home,” said a sergeant who requested anonymity. “Serving warrants is a job for a cop, not for a U.S. soldier.”
Nevertheless, the status-of-forces agreement is a visible, legal symbol of Iraq regaining its sovereignty and can´t be ignored, observers say. U.S. troops at checkpoints who see a terrorism suspect they want in a car but don´t have a warrant on him will simply have to let him go unless he poses an imminent danger to their safety, commits an offense in front of them or is in possession of a weapon.
“Our hands will be kind of tied with that. But we have to respect Iraqi law,” the U.S. sergeant said. “That´s what´s required, and that´s what we´re going to do.”