Iraqi Leaders Question U.S. Troops' Immunity

By Jonathan Finer and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 6, 2006

BAGHDAD, July 5 -- Following a recent string of alleged atrocities by U.S. troops against Iraqi civilians, leaders from across Iraq's political spectrum called Wednesday for a review of the U.S.-drafted law that prevents prosecution of coalition forces in Iraqi courts.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters during a visit to Kuwait that "the immunity given to members of coalition forces encouraged them to commit such crimes in cold blood," adding, "That makes it necessary to review it."

The demand could widen a rift between U.S. and Iraqi authorities over killings and other crimes allegedly carried out in recent months. Maliki, who said last month that excessive force by U.S. troops was commonplace, also said Monday that the government would open its own investigation into allegations of rape and murder by American soldiers during a March attack on a family in Mahmudiyah.

A top U.S. military spokesman told reporters during a briefing in Baghdad that investigations into the Mahmudiyah case and several others are "being pursued vigorously."

"We will hold ourselves accountable for our actions," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV added, saying that if crimes occurred they would be an aberration and that U.S. forces have made many positive contributions.

The dispute centers on a rule with the force of law enacted two years ago by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Known as CPA Order 17, it stipulates that coalition forces, diplomatic personnel and contractors working for coalition forces or for diplomats "shall be immune from the Iraqi legal process." But challenges to the immunity order have gained momentum, beginning with the November killing of 24 civilians in Haditha, which came to light in March when Time magazine reported the incident.

In a rare unified stance by factional leaders, members of Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni Arab political blocs endorsed Maliki's call to revisit the immunity issue.

"In the name of immunity a lot of crimes have occurred, whether it is foreign forces or the security guards they have," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker.

Alaa Makky, an official with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Arab political group, said his organization had long criticized the immunity policy. While U.S. forces will investigate certain "high-profile" cases, such as those in Mahmudiyah and Haditha, he said, "there are thousands of these events, really, that are vile and that never get noticed."

An Iraqi government official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said Maliki hoped to revise Order 17 when the U.N. resolution authorizing the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq comes up for renewal at the end of the year.

Caldwell called the immunity question a legal matter and said he would consult military lawyers before articulating a position. However, he appeared to leave room for negotiation on the issue.

"We are here as guests of the Iraqi government. They're a sovereign nation," Caldwell said. "We're going to sit and discuss with them whatever they want to discuss."

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