Transition teams, but no players
Most of the committees created to guide the transition from U.S. to Iraqi control of security in the country have yet to appoint members, let alone convene, the senior American general in Iraq said Tuesday.
Committees assigned to deal with U.S.-led combat operations and jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel are among those that have not met even as Iraq moves toward sovereignty, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters.
“The Iraqis are still forming their committees and who will be on the committees,” he said.
There is no cause for alarm, Odierno said, adding that progress is being made in key areas of the transition, such as control of Iraqi airspace and the Green Zone safety area that houses Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies.
Odierno said the Iraqi government was working hard to pick the best people for the dozen-plus committees, which will focus on matters such as communication frequencies, entry into the country, the transfer of bases, and training and equipping Iraqi forces.
“This is about a partnership and a spirit. We know what that is, we know what the intent is. . . . As issues come up, we’ll resolve them with these committees,” the general said.
The transition accord signed last month by the Iraqi and U.S. governments calls for American troops to withdraw to bases outside Iraqi cities by the end of June and for all U.S. forces to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
The pact, which replaces the United Nations mandate that charged U.S. forces with responsibility for Iraq’s security until the end of this year, was the subject of long negotiations. Its opponents charged that it jeopardized Iraq’s sovereignty and extended America’s dominance in Iraq.
U.S. forces have already begun functioning as if Iraq was in charge of national security. For example, since Dec. 1, U.S. troops have sought arrest warrants from Iraqi judges for almost all detentions, and since spring they have notified Iraqi commanders about most of their combat operations.
Among the key U.S.-Iraqi security committees that have yet to meet is the umbrella group for all military policy, the Joint Military Operations Coordination Committee. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is submitting names to his Cabinet and presidency council for approval. The committee is expected to be headed by Odierno and Iraq’s defense minister.
Other bodies still lacking members include one designed to supervise the transfer of detainees from Iraqi to U.S. custody and one that will decide whether U.S. soldiers can be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.
Potentially sticky issues include the conditions under which U.S. forces could launch raids independent of Iraqi troops.
Currently, U.S. security commanders inform their Iraqi counterparts of raids. After Jan. 1, if an Iraqi commander objects, the matter will in principle go to the next level in the chain of command.
Ammar Tuama, a Shiite lawmaker who sits on parliament’s national security committee, agreed that some raids would require further discussion and clarification.
Odierno emphasized that transfer of control of the Green Zone would be gradual.
Tuama noted that the Iraqis weren’t yet ready to handle matters such as issuing ID cards for Green Zone entry.
“Handing over the file of the Green Zone has a symbolic value,” Tuama said. “However, at the same time, the agreement allows that the Iraqis could benefit from the help of the multinational forces.”
Iraq experts said relations between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government easily could be strained, depending on what happens next year.
“Even if all the committees are in place, Iraqi politics could change any agreement or all of these procedures with no warning,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you have one really drastic incident that catalyzes Iraqi politics, suddenly all of these agreements could lead to a new set of Iraqi demands.”
He warned that the Americans would continue to find themselves on the front lines of multiple power struggles: between Shiite factions, Sunni factions, Sunnis and Shiites, and Kurds and Arabs.
Odierno also recognized that there were dangers in the months ahead. He said the U.S. and Iraq could be challenged by armed groups as the transfer of power gets underway.
“We have to do [the transition] in a coordinated way so the enemies of Iraq do not get any advantage,” he said. “In military terms, transitions are always the most dangerous times.”
Special correspondent Saif Hameed contributed to this report.