U.S. Agrees to Lift Immunity for Contractors in Iraq
New York Times (2008-07-02) Sabrina Tavernise
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BAGHDAD — Iraq's foreign minister said Tuesday that the United States had agreed to lift immunity for foreign security contractors operating in Iraq, making them subject to prosecution under Iraqi law, according to Iraqi politicians.
In a briefing for lawmakers on the status of a complex security agreement being negotiated with the United States, the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said Iraq had insisted on ending the immunity for private security companies, according to three Iraqi politicians who were present. American troops are operating under a United Nations mandate that expires in December.
The private security companies, like Blackwater USA, have reputations of using excessive force in protecting diplomatic and other foreign clients, and currently enjoy immunity from Iraqi law. That immunity became a political issue last fall, after a Blackwater shooting in Baghdad in September left 17 Iraqis dead, according to Iraqi investigators.
According to the three Iraqi politicians who were interviewed, Mr. Zebari said the agreement by the United States to lift the immunity eliminated one of many sticking points in the negotiations, which the United States has said it wants to complete by the end of this month.
A spokeswoman for the United States Embassy declined to comment on the negotiations.
Some Iraqi politicians also want to end immunity for American soldiers, a demand the United States military has strongly opposed.
Iraqi negotiators are working "to submit the American soldiers, their security companies and their movements and behaviors in military operations to Iraqi law," said Falah Shanshal, a lawmaker from the bloc of Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric.
Another point the Americans appeared to be conceding, Iraqi politicians said, was control of airspace over Iraq, an important strategic lever that would determine who is authorized to fly over the country.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Parliament, said the concession was simply part of political maneuvering. Iraq does not have a full-fledged air force and lacks the equipment and expertise to take control of air traffic over the country. As a result, he said, the United States would "keep control even if it was handed to Iraqis."
Also on Tuesday, Iraq's main Sunni bloc, known in Arabic as Tawafiq, said it was closer to rejoining Iraq's cabinet after a boycott of almost a year. The group had criticized Iraq's prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, saying he favored Shiites in security operations, but softened its position after a series of government offensives against Mr. Sadr's militias this spring.
Another judge was the target of an intimidation campaign on Tuesday, at least the sixth in two days, in a trend that has alarmed Iraq's judiciary. A bomb was placed near the house of Judge Qusay al-Bayati, of the Court of Appeals in eastern Baghdad. The judges previously attacked were on the same court. The bomb was defused and did not explode.
Deaths of Iraqi civilians and security personnel, at the lowest levels in years, totaled 975 in June, compared with 1,165 in May, according to figures supplied by the Ministry of Interior. Of last month's total, only 175 were killed in Baghdad.
Reporting was contributed by Anwar J. Ali, Mudhafer al-Husaini, Riyadh Muhammad and Suadad al-Salhy from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Hilla, Mosul and Baquba.