US quietly demands Iraq give defense contractors, US military immunity from prosecution
John Byrne and Gavin McNett
Published: Friday January 25, 2008 |
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US officials are dragooning Iraq into accepting immunity for US civilian contractors in new negotiations with the Iraqi government just months after a feud over a private defense contractor exploded into an international outcry.

The Bush administration insists that Baghdad give the US "broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials," a front page story in Friday's New York Times reports.

The Administration's proposed security agreement would replace the current United Nations mandate authorizing the US presence in Iraq, which is set to expire Dec. 31, 2008.

No other country working with the US military in Iraq is exempt from local laws. A September, 2007 incident in which defense contractor Blackwater USA shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians sparked an intense public faceoff between the Administration and the Iraqi government after Iraq refused to continue Blackwater's license. Blackwater, which provided security for the State Department, was soon allowed to continue business, though its immunity was revoked by Congress.

Officials have also demanded that Iraq give US troops immunity from local laws and the ability to arrest and detain suspects.

But the White House confirmed yesterday that its new budget, to be submitted in February, will reverse last year's policy of providing a full year of funding for the war in Iraq, "leaving the next president and Congress to confront major cost questions soon after taking office in 2009," the Politico reported on Wednesday.

Last year's budget, unveiled soon after Democrats took control of Congress, was explicit in requesting a full year's worth of funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new budget, the Politico notes, returns to the adminstration's prior practice of "request[ing] only incremental 'bridge' funding," and "won't sustain the military through the full length of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2009."

"The American negotiating position for a formal military-to-military relationship, one that would replace the current United Nations mandate, is laid out in a draft proposal that was described by White House, Pentagon, State Department and military officials on ground rules of anonymity," the Times wrote. "It also includes less controversial demands that American troops be immune from Iraqi prosecution, and that they maintain the power to detain Iraqi prisoners."

Gates disputes claim of 'permanent bases'

This reversal in requesting war funding is concurrent with an effort by the White House to remake the terms of the US military commitment in Iraq. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) assert that Bush is trying to lock a new president into a long-term presence.

An NPR report Thursday suggested that Administration lawyers might use the words "continuing" or "enduring" bases, rather than "permanent" bases, which Congress voted to ban last year.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said these charges were spurious.

Gates sought to dismiss concerns among critics that a planned US military accord with Iraq would tie the hands of future US presidents regarding the mandate of US troops in the war-torn country and create permanent US bases.

"I think it is pretty clear that such an agreement would not talk about force levels. It would not involve -- we have no interest in permanent bases," he told reporters.

The US defense chief also insisted that discussions had just barely started on the on the still-to-be-negotiated Status of Forces Agreement.

According to a report by the House Oversight Committee, a single Blackwater guard ends up costing taxpayers $1,222 per day, or $445,000 per year, six times the equivalent of a US soldier.

Officials testify they cannot control contractors

Veteran intelligence correspondent Walter Pincus, writing in the Washington Post Friday, reported that US officials now believe the Bush administration is unprepared to manage contractors involvement in the war.

Contractors "have become part of our total force, a concept that DoD [the Defense Department] must manage on an integrated basis with our military forces," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Jack Bell in prepared testimony for a hearing yesterday of the Senate homeland security subcommittee, Pincus wrote. "Frankly, we were not adequately prepared to address" what he termed "this unprecedented scale of our dependence on contractors."

"Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-DE), the subcommittee's chairman, noted that the Defense Contract Audit Agency has reported that $10 billion of about $57 billion in contracts for services and reconstruction in Iraq "is either questionable or cannot be supported because of a lack of contractor information needed to assess costs," Pincus continued. "He added that more than 80 separate criminal investigations are underway involving contracts of more than $5 billion."

With wire services.