October 10, 2011 7:07 pm

Iraq threatens to break military links with US

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Baghdad is threatening to break its military relations with Washington at the end of this year and use private contractors to train its armed forces, as the two sides struggle to agree on terms that would see a small number of American troops remain in Iraq next year.

The two sides have agreed in principle that several thousand US troops should stay in Iraq in a training capacity after the official end of the American mission at the end of the year, but they have become bogged down over whether to grant US troops immunity from prosecution if they commit crimes.

The Iraqi government was already training pilots with Lockheed Martin, from which Iraq recently bought F-16 jets, Ali al-Dabbagh, Iraqi government spokesman, said on Monday.

“When we buy [military] equipment, there’s a possibility that ...training could go ahead” on “commercial” terms, he said in an interview at a World Economic Forum event in Abu Dhabi.

However, commercial training is unlikely to replicate the scale of what the US could offer. Iraqi and US officials have been locked in talks for months over the shape and size of a continued presence after the current mission ends on December 31.

A number of Iraq’s political blocs agreed last week to US troops remaining in a training role beyond the end of this year on the premise that they would not be granted immunity from Iraqi law.

“We are ready to discuss the options available without immunity and a different definition for the trainers,” Mr Dabbagh said.

But immunity from prosecution under local law is part of all US “status of forces agreements” (Sofa) with host countries, including Japan, South Korea, Germany and Iraq.

The pacts stipulate that local courts cannot try US military personnel, including for premeditated crimes committed by off-duty forces. This has proved controversial in many host countries, including Japan, where US soldiers have been accused of rape on the island of Okinawa.

The Pentagon said it was considering the Iraqi statements. “We are in the process of discussing these matters with the Iraqi government,” said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman. “As a general principle, US service members serving overseas require appropriate legal protections.”

Both sides want the US to retain a residual training force in Iraq but the details have proved thorny, not least because Iraqi politicians do not want to appear to be encouraging a continued “occupation”. A new Sofa must be approved by Iraq’s parliament.

A US official played down the recent posturing, saying that it appeared to be for domestic purposes.

“We understand that the immunities issue is a sensitive issue in Iraq, so it’s highly likely that Iraqi officials are taking a hard public stand on it while negotiations are underway,” he said.

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