The Defense Department said Monday that the U.S. military advisers headed to Iraq to try to shore up the embattled central government there will be protected against potential criminal prosecution for their actions in the war-torn country.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, responded to days of questions from reporters asking whether the Iraqi government had granted a blanket immunity to the up to 300 military advisers President Barack Obama dispatched last week.
“I can confirm for you that Iraq has provided acceptable assurances on the issue of protections for those personnel via the exchange of diplomatic note,” Kirby said in a statement.
Kirby, however, stopped short of using the word “immunity” to describe the scope of the protections.
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“Specially, Iraq has committed itself to providing protections for our personnel equivalent to those provided to personnel who were in country before the crisis,” he said. “We believe these protections are adequate to the short-term assessment and advisory mission our (new) troops will be performing in Iraq. With this agreement, we will be able to start establishing the first few assessment teams.”
That explanation was less than clear cut.
The past refusal of the Iraqi government to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops in Iraq prevented the two governments from reaching a new Status of Forces Agreement when an earlier bilateral accord expired Dec. 31, 2011.
That failure, in turn, hastened President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of the final U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by the end of 2011.
About 250 U.S. troops were left in Iraq before the recent upheaval compelled Obama to send more. Half were Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, with most of the rest advising the Iraqi military.
But since violence flared anew June 12, Obama has dispatched as many as 470 new troops to Iraq and an additional 100 to an undisclosed base outside its borders to be prepared for contingency operations.
After Sunni militants began capturing cities north of Baghdad, Obama first dispatched 170 troops to help secure the Baghdad embassy as the State Department moved some diplomatic staff from the compound. He sent the extra 100 contingency troops to the area outside Iraq.
Then, last Thursday, Obama announced that he was sending up to 300 Special Forces troops to work with Iraqi forces and assess the overall security situation.