U.S. Commanders Are Concerned About New Iraqi Restrictions on American Troops

U.S. military officials cite a recent surge in violence, such as this roadside bomb attack in Baghdad on July 2.
U.S. military officials cite a recent surge in violence, such as this roadside bomb attack in Baghdad on July 2. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)

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By Ernesto Londoño and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 18, 2009

BAGHDAD, July 17 -- The Iraqi government has moved to sharply restrict the movement and activities of U.S. forces in a new reading of a six-month-old U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that has startled American commanders and raised concerns about the safety of their troops.

In a curt missive issued by the Baghdad Operations Command on July 2 -- the day after Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside city centers -- Iraq's top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to "stop all joint patrols" in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to "notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement."

The strict application of the agreement coincides with what U.S. military officials in Washington say has been an escalation of attacks against their forces by Iranian-backed Shiite extremist groups, to which they have been unable to fully respond.

If extremists realize "some of the limitations that we have, that's a vulnerability they could use against us," a senior U.S. military intelligence official said. "The fact is that some of these are very politically sensitive targets" thought to be close to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The new guidelines are a reflection of rising tensions between the two governments. Iraqi leaders increasingly see the agreement as an opportunity to show their citizens that they are now unequivocally in charge and that their dependence on the U.S. military is minimal and waning.

The June 30 deadline for moving U.S. troops out of Iraqi towns and cities was the first of three milestones under the agreement. The U.S. military is to decrease its troop levels from 130,000 to 50,000 by August of next year.

U.S. commanders have described the pullout from cities as a transition from combat to stability operations. But they have kept several combat battalions assigned to urban areas and hoped those troops would remain deeply engaged in training Iraqi security forces, meeting with paid informants, attending local council meetings and supervising U.S.-funded civic and reconstruction projects.

The Americans have been taken aback by the new restrictions on their activities. The Iraqi order runs "contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.

"Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be." He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.

"This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe," he wrote. "We'll do that, preferably partnered."

U.S. commanders have not publicly described in detail how they interpret the agreement's vaguely worded provision that gives them the right to self-defense. The issue has bedeviled them because commanders are concerned that responding quickly and forcefully to threats could embarrass the Iraqi government and prompt allegations of agreement violations.

A spate of high-casualty suicide bombings in Shiite neighborhoods, attributed to al-Qaeda in Iraq and related Sunni insurgent groups, has overshadowed the increase of attacks by Iran-backed Shiite extremists, U.S. official say.


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