U.S. Troops in Iraq Find Little Leeway

Staff Maj. Ali Abdul Hussein Khadum, 41, left, studies a map with Capt. Dustin Navarro, 27, of Dallas.
Staff Maj. Ali Abdul Hussein Khadum, 41, left, studies a map with Capt. Dustin Navarro, 27, of Dallas. (Ernesto Londono -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 20, 2009

BAGHDAD, July 19 -- The tip was as alarming as it was unusual. A Sunni insurgent cell was planning a mortar attack on a large U.S. base adjacent to Baghdad's airport.

A credible informant told U.S. intelligence officials Tuesday morning that several mortars launching from nearby Amiriyah, a quiet neighborhood that had not been a staging ground for rocket or mortar attacks since 2007, would rain down shells on the base that night.

Over the next few days, Capt. Dustin Navarro and his Iraqi army counterpart wrangled over the appropriate response. They met, argued, sparred and compromised. In the end, two things became evident: First, Iraqi and American commanders have markedly different notions of what U.S. troops in Baghdad are entitled to do to protect themselves under a security agreement that went into effect July 1 and that sharply limits U.S. activity in Iraqi cities.

Also clear was that the balance of power, at least in the capital, has tipped, fulfilling a principle Americans have long paid lip service to, and now appear deeply worried about: Iraqis are taking the lead. A year ago, the most likely U.S. response to the tip would have been to dispatch a pair of Apache helicopters to hover over the suspected launch site -- a tactic that would not be used today because it could easily spark a political controversy. The pilots would have needed no more than evidence of "hostile intent" on the ground to send Hellfire missiles roaring down.

A month ago, when U.S. troops could operate openly in the city without permission from the Iraqis, Navarro could have sent soldiers on foot to stealthily take up positions in the neighborhood.

But neither option was on the table last week. Ever since the pullback of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities, the Iraqi government has sharply limited their mobility and operations in urban areas. It has barred Iraqi ground commanders from conducting joint patrols with Americans and has warned that those who give U.S. commanders too much leeway will be punished. U.S. officials contend that the security agreement gives them vast latitude on matters of self-defense, but Iraqis have interpreted those provisions strictly.

The conflicting interpretations of the security agreement, U.S. officials said, have led to numerous standoffs on the ground, including cases in which Iraqi soldiers have prevented American convoys from passing through checkpoints.

Navarro alerted his Iraqi counterpart in the area, Staff Maj. Ali Abdul Hussein Kadhum, about the threat Tuesday afternoon. Kadhum beefed up manpower at checkpoints, flooded the neighborhood with his soldiers and imposed a curfew.

Because of the heavy military presence, the U.S. informant told his handler, the insurgents decided to push back the attack by one day, Navarro said. On Wednesday, Navarro urged Kadhum to consider a more discreet response: They were more likely to catch the insurgents by keeping a low profile and letting them come close to launching the attack.

"Success in my mind was preventing the attack and capturing the individuals with admissible evidence," said Navarro, a cavalry commander from Dallas. "Success in his mind is that there is no attack and no one gets caught. Any attack or any capture would have been perceived as a failure on his part because it means enemy forces and mortar systems were able to get inside his checkpoints."

Navarro was overruled. He told Kadhum he intended to send soldiers into the neighborhood if they perceived an imminent threat, a step U.S. officials contend they can take under the vaguely worded right-to-self-defense provision in the security agreement that regulates their presence in Iraq.

Kadhum said he wouldn't allow it, Navarro said. Any joint mission now had to be approved directly by the prime minister, the Iraqi said.

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