BAGHDAD — U.S. officials have scrambled this past week to redraw a 2012 military training plan after Iraqi leaders announced they would not grant immunity to troops who remain past the Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal.
Since Tuesday, when Iraqi leaders formally requested that U.S. military training continue into next year, military and diplomatic officials in Washington and Baghdad have been sketching alternative proposals that could place training in the hands of private security contractors or NATO, entities that can be legally covered some other way.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta stipulated Thursday that any remaining U.S. troops must have immunity. A State Department official said Saturday that while Iraq is not likely to budge on its resistance to military immunity, there are other paths to continuing the U.S. training mission in the country.
“We both have a vision that coincides on the need for military trainers,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the sensitive negotiations. “The U.S. government is working out what our vision of legal status options are that we will live with. The U.S. government has not yet presented that to the Iraqis. They may accept it. They may not.”
With only 12 weeks until the end of the current U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, this sticking point has set the protracted discussion back to square one, according to Iraqi political analyst Wathiq al-Hashemi.
Leaders of Iraq’s political blocs met Tuesday evening at the home of President Jalal Talabani to discuss the issue, emerging 90 minutes later to admit the need for trainers but asserting their sovereignty by withholding immunity, which would have exempted the trainers from prosecution in the Iraqi judicial system.
The announcement sparked rousing speeches in parliament.
“We need engineers and experts from the manufacturing companies themselves — not from the U.S. military — to train the Iraqis to use this equipment,” said Hassan al-Snaid, chairman of parliament’s security and defense committee and member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition. Iraq has ordered nearly $9 billion worth of American military equipment and recently arranged a deal to buy 18 fighter jets for $3 billion.
“The other option is to send the Iraqis to train outside Iraq,” Snaid said.
In a session Thursday, Sadrist lawmaker Maha al-Durri called Tuesday’s request for trainers “another black day in Iraq” that will extend “the occupier’s oppression.”
The immunity factor will prolong and bedevil negotiations, according to independent lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, who predicted that under no circumstances would the Iraqi parliament sanction immunity for U.S. troops.
“Americans misuse immunity,” Othman said in a phone interview. “They’ve had it for eight years. They made a lot of violations … Sometimes they killed people, attacked people, captured people, and no one could tell them anything. Iraq doesn’t want a repeat of that.”
Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, fatal incidents involving private security contractors and the collateral civilian damage from U.S. military operations have not faded from Iraqis’ memories, though the United States has prosecuted such crimes in its own courts.
U.S. forces — currently numbering just over 40,000 servicemembers — are withdrawing from Iraq at an average of 500 soldiers per day, as the State Department mobilizes a massive personnel and logistics operation to assume control of the Iraq mission from the military. Previous talks between the United States and Iraq hinted at an ongoing training presence of 3,000 to 5,000 troops, though the number of trainers is likely to be lower now that military immunity is off the table.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.