In an early test of its imminent sovereignty, Iraq's new government has been resisting a U.S. demand that thousands of foreign contractors here be granted immunity from Iraqi law, in the same way as U.S. military forces are now immune, according to Iraqi sources.
The U.S. proposal, although not widely known, has touched a nerve with some nationalist-minded Iraqis already chafing under the 14-month-old U.S.-led occupation. If accepted by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, it would put the highly visible U.S. foreign contractors into a special legal category, not subject to military justice and beyond the reach of Iraq's justice system.
The U.S. request, confirmed Sunday by Allawi's office, is one of a number of delicate issues revolving around government authority that will confront the incoming U.S. ambassador, John D. Negroponte, when Allawi's interim government assumes formal sovereignty June 30.
Although the Bush administration repeatedly has promised that Iraqis will receive authentic sovereignty, the U.S. military has made it clear that U.S. officers will remain in charge of security, the country's top concern. People here widely assume that U.S. influence will remain decisive for a long time in almost every domain.
The in-control status of U.S. troops and officials -- from Humvee drivers who demand priority in traffic to civilian administrators intervening in the choice of Iraqi leaders -- often has been cited by Iraqis who oppose the occupation on nationalist grounds. The civilian contractors, particularly armed security personnel, have generated similar resentment from Iraqis, many of whom long ago tired of having foreigners tell them where they can and cannot go.
The question of the contractors' status also has arisen because of two U.S. contract employees at Abu Ghraib prison who were accused in a Pentagon report of participating in illegal abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The two -- Steven Stephanowicz of CACI International, an Arlington-based defense firm, and John B. Israel of the Titan Corp. of San Diego -- have not been charged with any crimes in Iraq or the United States, although some of their Army colleagues face military tribunals.
As an occupying army, the 138,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq have been outside Iraqi law since U.S.-led forces took over the country in April of last year. The troops will remain exempt in the future on the basis of a June 8 U.N. Security Council resolution and an accompanying exchange of letters between Allawi and the U.S. government in which Iraq requests their continued presence, according to a senior U.S. military official.
As a result, there will be no need for an immediate status of forces agreement -- the kind that usually governs U.S. military presence in foreign countries, the official said. U.S. soldiers will continue to be subject to U.S. military justice only.
"We will continue to operate more or less as before," the official added.
But the status of civilian contractors has become a special question because the contractors are not covered by the Security Council resolution or the letter from Allawi requesting that U.S. forces remain in Iraq for an undetermined time. Moreover, they do not come under U.S. military jurisdiction because they are not part of the military, although some are hired by the Pentagon.
In that light, the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority has asked Allawi to grant the contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraq similar to that granted soldiers, said George Sada, Allawi's spokesman. "They have made that demand," Sada said. "We think it is a bit too much. It is under discussion."
The Coalition Provisional Authority did not respond to questions for comment on the proposal.
The number of foreign contractors in Iraq has fluctuated greatly over the months. Many civilians working in the reconstruction effort have left in the last few months because of rising violence and the taking of foreign hostages. But many have remained, particularly security guards, who are highly visible around Baghdad and other cities with their armored four-wheel-drive vehicles, automatic rifles and flak jackets.
Because no central authority registers foreign contractors, their presence has not been tallied with precision, according to security consultants. Estimates of the total number of foreigners working here -- from Americans to South Africans to Chileans -- have ranged from 20,000 to 30,000. "But no one really knows," said a civilian security executive.
The U.S. proposal was believed to cover only U.S. citizens. The senior military official said that after June 30 it would be up to the embassies of each country to work out arrangements for their own nationals. "Every foreign citizen will have a certain status in Iraq," he said.
A civilian official in the U.S. occupation authority said some security contractors have begun to ask about their status after June 30, particularly since the campaign of violence by insurgents that, over the last two months, has made life here more dangerous for foreigners. But it is unlikely that the interim Iraqi government would seek to arrest civilian security personnel or interfere with their work, the official said.
"Are some Iraqi security people going to move in and arrest our cooks and bottle washers?" he said. "I don't think so."
Sada, Allawi's spokesman, said the U.S. proposal was put forth, along with other issues, in regular meetings Allawi had with L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority; David Gompert, a senior Bremer aide for national security issues who is about to leave; and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Allawi, a secular Shiite who headed a CIA-funded exile group that opposed former president Saddam Hussein, has said repeatedly since assuming office June 1 that he wants to cooperate with the United States and believes U.S. troops should remain in the country to help restore security. In line with U.S. thinking, he has qualified Iraqis who fight U.S. occupation troops as terrorists and dismissed their claims to be Iraqi nationalists.
At the same time, he and other members of the 36-member interim government have Iraqi constituencies to think about as well as the United States. Any move likely to bruise Iraqi sensibilities -- or stoke the bloody rebellion against U.S. occupation troops -- carries a political price they would be reluctant to pay.
Moqtada Sadr, a militant young Shiite Muslim cleric who has opposed the U.S. occupation with his Mahdi Army militia, said Friday, for instance, that he would lay down his arms and support Allawi's government only if it sets a timetable for ending the occupation.