Ways of staying on in Iraq
Some US troops could remain in Iraq even after Iraqi political leaders ruled out their receiving immunity from prosecution, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the year-end deadline for American forces in Iraq to leave the country approaches, Iraqi and American policy-makers are at loggerheads over an agreement on the future of military cooperation between the two countries, after Iraq's political leadership insisted that there will be no immunity for any remaining US soldiers.
However, despite headlines that negotiators are struggling in their efforts to come up with a plan to keep some US soldiers in Iraq beyond the 31 December deadline, there are signs that Baghdad and Washington could come up with a compromise.
Leaders of Iraq's political blocs have admitted the need for US military trainers to remain in the country after the end of the year, but they have also asserted their sovereignty by withholding any immunity for them, which would have exempted the trainers from possible prosecution.
Under the 2008 agreement signed between the US and Iraq, all American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of this year, and while Iraq has said that it is committed to the agreement, some US officials have been advocating a continued presence for US troops past the withdrawal date.
Washington has insisted that any US troops remaining in Iraq beyond the scheduled pull-out must have legal protection and be immune from prosecution.
The US has crafted over 100 agreements with foreign nations hosting American troops to give its soldiers broad immunity from prosecution for different kinds of crimes committed against civilians.
The treaties, known as Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA), have proved controversial in many countries, including Japan where US soldiers were accused of rape some years ago.
The issue of any remaining American troops in Iraq receiving immunity is a complicated one, and strong opposition from Iraqis makes it difficult to get any deal past the country's parliament.
Many Iraqis consider foreign troops on their soil to be a violation of their sovereignty, with others believing that the presence of American troops is counter-productive and could lead to more violence or be used as an excuse for attacks on Iraqi civilians.
Radical Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, a leading partner in Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's ruling coalition government, has warned that his followers will attack any American soldiers remaining in Iraq after 2011.
Protection for US troops is a sensitive issue in Iraq, where many people still have memories of the violations committed by US soldiers and contractors during the eight-year occupation of the country following the 2003 US-led invasion.
Since 2003, many innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed by US military forces in Iraq, either at heavily fortified checkpoints, or during botched raids and illegal detentions.
The abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and fatal incidents involving private security contractors and collateral damage from US military operations have not faded from many Iraqis' memories.
While some low-ranking American soldiers have faced trial for crimes committed in Iraq, the US has routinely claimed immunity for its soldiers and sometimes also for foreign security guards in its employ in Iraq.
However, both Iraqi and US officials now seem to hold out hope that some sort of accommodation might be reached to allow some US forces to remain in the country after the end-of-year deadline.
The reluctance by the Iraqi government to give immunity to the US soldiers seems to be designed to push the US administration into accepting a less inflammatory alternative.
Al-Maliki revealed on Monday that Iraqi and US negotiators were considering other options, including US troops being attached to the existing US embassy training mission or joining a broader NATO training group.
The US government plans to maintain a sizable presence in Iraq, where it has its largest foreign embassy. This already has US military trainers attached to it, and uniformed military personnel could receive diplomatic protection.
NATO, which has a training mission in Iraq that will stay through 2013, is providing expertise in logistics and policing.
Iraqi lawmakers are also discussing an extension of the NATO mission, which would allow trainers in many cases to come under their own country's legal jurisdictions for certain crimes.
While the US administration has not officially responded to Al-Maliki's proposal, a report in the Washington Post on Monday suggested that officials were considering options for a military training plan after the Iraqi announcement.
The newspaper said that US military and diplomatic officials in Washington and Baghdad had been sketching out alternative proposals that could put training in the hands of private security contractors or NATO, entities that could be legally covered in some other way than through immunity.
Although Iraqi leaders have said that they would like to have American help in military training, the country's security officials are haunted by the fear that they may not have the resources or capacity to deal with the country's security problems.
Attacks by Al-Qaeda on the country's Shia community have been increasing, and these are sending tremors through Iraq's security forces, raising questions about what will happen when the Americans withdraw.
On Saturday, the government decided to delay plans to hand over security in towns to the police and to pull Iraqi troops back to bases outside the cities.
Military spokesman Atta Al-Moussawi said that there were concerns that if the Iraqi army pulled out of the cities, violence could return. He said that the military was worried that the police would not be able to handle security in all areas of the country.
The delay is an acknowledgment that even after eight years of US occupation, Iraq's police force is still not capable of maintaining security in the country. Part of the problem lies in the lack of confidence in the security forces, which are divided on sectarian lines and believed to be infiltrated by political groups and militias.
There have also been worries about foreign threats, since Iraq has to face up not only to home-made violence, but also to the prospect of interference by its neighbours.
Iran is widely believed to be planning to exploit the possible security vacuum that could exist in the country following the US troop withdrawal, in order to exert its influence over a weakened Iraq.
This prospect will be worrying to both Iraq and the United States, especially if the Iran-backed regime in Syria survives the upheaval triggered by the Arab Spring.
Many analysts believe that a complete American pull-out from Iraq will provide a "land bridge" for Iran to reach out to its Shia ally Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Iran would be able to fly military equipment to Hizbullah directly through Iraqi airspace, for example, which is currently controlled by the American military.
Such considerations add to the importance of military agreements signed between Baghdad and Washington last month, indicating agreement between the two countries on common interests.
The first of the agreements, a deal estimated at $3 billion to buy 18 fighter jets from the US, is a measure aimed at protecting Iraqi airspace after years of relying on help from American pilots.
The second agreement involves the sale of two new air-traffic control centres that would be used to improve and upgrade Iraq's air-traffic control system.
The agreements mean the US troops will still be asked to help patrol the country's skies, train its air force and help control its airspace for years to come.
Iraqi leaders and US officials know that the stakes are high and that time is short, but any agreement on the future of US troops in Iraq could be a matter of necessity and not of choice.