Criminal case throws spotlight on US-Iraq ties

By Ross Colvin


BAGHDAD: A rape-murder case that prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to urge a review of foreign troops’ immunity from prosecution has turned attention on “Order No. 17”, a document at the heart of the Iraq-US relationship.

The 13-page decree was signed by US governor Paul Bremer the day before he formally returned sovereignty to an interim government on June 28, 2004, and then hastily left the country.

Order 17 sets the ground rules for the American occupation of Iraq and crucially grants foreign troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. It remains in force for the duration of the three-year-old UN mandate under which US-led forces are in Iraq, or until rescinded by the Iraqi parliament.

Outraged by the rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager and killing of her family by a US soldier in Mahmudiya, Iraqis have long complained that many other US abuses go unpunished.

Maliki himself expressed concern that the immunity offered by Order 17 “emboldens” soldiers, although American generals stress their troops are accountable under military law.

Maliki’s call for the decree to be reviewed comes at a time when his government of Kurds, Shias and Sunnis is seeking to redefine its relationship with Washington, while reaching out to the country’s minority Sunnis to end a raging insurgency against his administration.

Analysts say Maliki is conscious that while he is heavily dependent on US military support the Americans will not always be around to buffer his government against insurgency.

His administration’s popular survival depends partly on demonstrating its sovereignty, that it is answerable not to Washington but to Iraqi voters, many of whom, including in his own government, want a timetable for troop withdrawal set soon.

The prime minister has talked up the prospect of US-led troops leaving within 18 months, and in May, soon after taking office, said he was growing impatient with excuses from US troops that they killed civilians “by mistake”.

He wants independent inquiries into the Mahmudiya case and the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha by US troops in November.

Ordinary Iraqis hold Americans responsible for hundreds of other deaths, notably by troops fearing suicide bomb attacks.

Analysts say US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad understands Maliki needs to establish his credibility with the Iraqi street by putting some distance between himself and his American backers.

“I think Khalilzad has understood this from the beginning and has more instinct ... to tolerate this criticism than some people in Washington,” said Larry Diamond, a former adviser to Bremer and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Washington sees Maliki’s coalition as its best chance to avert civil war and pave the way for an orderly US withdrawal.

But his call for a review of Order 17 suggests tough talking lies ahead in any negotiations to set new ground rules for US forces when the Security Council mandate expires in December.

“If I were Maliki I would certainly want to establish the principle that I was a sovereign government,” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military affairs and the Middle East.

Analysts say that while Maliki may use the negotiations to place his government on a more equal footing with US forces, possibly insisting on a joint military command with an Iraqi commander, their outcome for the US presence is not in doubt.

“Certainly Maliki will ask the occupying forces to stay. Neither he nor the parliament will refuse to renew the mandate,” said Hazim al-Nuaimy of Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University.

US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said it was premature to discuss what would happen when the mandate ran out and that meantime Order 17 “remains in effect”.

Under the constitution, previous decrees and laws remain in force until rescinded.

Cordesman ruled out Washington signing with any developing country the sort of treaty it has with Nato allies or Japan, which give their local courts some authority over US troops: “You don’t have a criminal system you can trust,” he said.

Nevertheless, the US military is clearly keen to shed any image as an invading, occupying force. As its chief spokesman in Iraq said this week: “We are guests of the Iraqi government.”—Reuters



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