Channel NewsAsia

Baghdad offers legal assurances to US advisers in Iraq

Iraq has offered legal guarantees to shield US special forces operatives sent to the country as advisers to assess how to help its forces battling a lightning advance by Sunni radicals.

WASHINGTON: Iraq has offered legal guarantees to shield US special forces operatives sent to the country as advisers to assess how to help its forces battling a lightning advance by Sunni radicals.

The White House said on Monday that the guarantee had been provided by the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a formal diplomatic note to Washington.

The failure of Iraq's parliament to endorse a Status of Forces deal with Washington led to the complete exodus of all American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 -- despite earlier hopes that a US training force would stay behind after the nine-year war.

Many of Obama's political opponents say their exit fostered a power vacuum which the Sunni group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has exploited in a rapid advance in which it has seized key cities including Mosul and Tikrit.

"The commander in chief would not make a decision to put our men and women in harm's way without getting some necessary assurances," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

"We can confirm that Iraq has provided acceptable assurances on the issue of protections for these personnel via the exchange of diplomatic note."

Obama last week announced the dispatch of up to 300 advisers to Iraq to assess the needs of the country's forces as they struggle to contain the advance of the Islamist fighters.

Earnest said the current situation differed from prevailing conditions at the end of 2011, making the less formal assurance of legal protections from Iraq more acceptable.

"We're dealing with an emergency situation... there is an urgent need for these advisers to be able to do their work on the ground in Iraq," he said.

Earnest also said the number of advisers contemplated for this mission was much smaller than the several thousand that had been contemplated for a post-Iraq force.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the protections offered were "adequate to the short-term assessment and advisory mission our troops will be performing in Iraq."

"With this agreement, we will be able to start establishing the first few assessment teams."

Officials said the first assessment team could be at work by Tuesday, as it will be drawn from US military personnel already on station at the US embassy in Baghdad.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf meanwhile said any transgressions by the US troops being sent to Iraq would be handled by the Uniform Code of Military Justice governing members of the armed forces.

A full Status of Forces agreement effectively lays out the legal jurisdictions which apply to American forces serving in a foreign country in peacetime.

In the SOFA negotiated between Baghdad and the former Bush administration, jurisdiction over US soldiers in the country was shared between Iraq and the US military.

Iraq however maintained sole responsibility for prosecuting Americans working for US security contracting teams who were accused of wrongdoing.

The SOFA would also have required all military operations conducted by the putative US garrison in Iraq, which was to be tasked with training local forces and combat terror groups like Al-Qaeda, to be approved by the Iraqi government.

Washington is waiting for Afghanistan to approve a similar deal to allow a follow on force to remain in Afghanistan after NATO combat operations draw to a close at the end of this year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the pact, reached after tortuous negotiations -- but both candidates in Afghanistan's run-off election have indicated they would do so.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia