Even after transition, U.S. wants military control in Iraq

Sunday, March 14, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In less than four months, a sovereign Iraqi government will have authority to impose restrictions on U.S. troops, or even request that they leave.

U.S. military officials here, who are already planning for American forces to be in Iraq through 2005, insist the latter option won't happen.

"We intend to stay here as invited guests as long as we are needed, as long as we are wanted, and as long as we are invited," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief, said.

U.S. officials want to make sure American forces are free to continue to kill insurgents, interrogate prisoners and command Iraq's new security forces.

But the rules that troops follow after the June 30 handover have yet to be written, and Iraq's government will have a say.

Iraq's transitional government is expected to "invite" the U.S. military to stay in control of Iraq's security, technically ending America's status as occupier. U.S. and British leaders say they expect few practical aspects of the occupation to change right away.

Military control will probably fall under a U.S.-headed joint command. Officials said plans are afoot to put an American four-star general at the head of the command, with a three-star general running operations. The current top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, is a three-star general.

Foreign troops needed

"That is the scheme which is being planned at the moment," a senior British official said condition of anonymity. "The Americans will announce it when it is all ready."

Iraq's U.S.-picked Governing Council, which advises the occupation authority, agrees that foreign troops will be needed to secure Iraq for the near future, said Hamed al-Bayati, a spokesman for council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

But no treaty guarantees this hoped-for state of affairs. There is no Iraqi government to approve it.

"At this point, we'd be negotiating with ourselves, because we are the government," said a top U.S. military official in Baghdad, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "This isn't a critical issue until we're no longer the Coalition Provisional Authority. But what happens when we hand over sovereignty?"

Whether the U.S. military gets the power it wants, remains to be seen.

Most Iraqis back a continued role for U.S. troops, but they're not likely to tolerate a foreign power in command of an Iraqi army, police, or even Iraqi prisoners, al-Bayati said.

"If we have a sovereign government, we can't put our forces under the command of another country's forces," he said.

Multinational force

The British official said some proposed treaty language would place Iraqi forces under Iraq's Ministry of Defense, which, in turn, "will agree to place them at the disposal of the multinational force."

The U.S. will keep jurisdiction over its own forces, of course, deciding whether to discipline soldiers for military excesses or acts that break Iraqi law, the U.S. official said.

"The good news is most Iraqi leaders know they need us," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The Iraqis will have the choice to send us home at any time. But if they send us back, we're not necessarily coming back if things fall apart. They know this. Both sides must know it's an Iraqi decision to keep American forces there."

A treaty governing the status of foreign military forces was supposed to be negotiated this month but was postponed until after the handover, al-Bayati said. Governing Council members thought it too important to be done under the strictures of occupation, he said.

The emerging treaty could restrict U.S. firepower, a worrying possibility for commanders.

"All we want to make sure of is that the missions we are asked to perform are consistent with the commissions of what we are allowed to do," the U.S. official said, adding that the military wants to avoid criticisms of U.S. soldiers failing to act because they are not allowed to shoot.

Lawyers working for the occupation authority believe the legal basis for preserving U.S. command lies within the dictates of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1511, which authorizes a multinational force under a single command.

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