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Iraq gives U.S. troops immunity

Ambassador cites prime minister’s assurances

Vivian Salama Associated Press

BAGHDAD – Washington has an agreement with Baghdad on privileges and immunities for the growing number of troops based in Iraq who are helping in the fight against the Islamic State group, the new U.S. ambassador said Thursday.

In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Stuart Jones said Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has given assurances that U.S. troops will receive immunity from prosecution. Under Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that issue was a major sticking point, ultimately leading to the decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops in late 2011.

“That was a different situation and those troops would have had a different role,” Jones said.

“We have the assurances that we need from the government of Iraq on privileges and immunities,” he said. “It’s in the basis of our formal written communications between our governments and also based on the strategic framework agreement that is the legal basis of our partnership.”

The U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi military has struggled to recover from its collapse in June, when the Islamic State group captured the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and swept over much of northern and western Iraq. The U.S. began launching airstrikes in Iraq on Aug. 8 and now heads a coalition backing Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces from the air.

U.S. advisory teams, which were previously based in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital Irbil, are now fanning out to other locations in the country, including the highly volatile Anbar province in western Iraq, where U.S. troops fought some of the heaviest battles of the eight-year conflict.

This time the troops are operating far from the front lines. “What we’re doing is airstrikes,” Jones said. “What we’re doing is sharing intelligence. We’re doing advise and assist and we’re doing training – and that’s all we’re doing.”

He declined to address whether U.S. ground troops will be needed to defeat the Islamic State group, instead pointing to recent successes by Iraqi security forces in retaking territory, including the town of Beiji and the country’s largest oil refinery, as well as Jurf al-Sakher, south of Baghdad.

Iraq’s Shiite militias, or Popular Mobilization Forces, played a central role in those victories. They have also been accused by rights groups of abducting, torturing and killing scores of Sunni civilians in reprisal attacks.

“Let’s be frank: They play an important role in the security of Iraq,” Jones said of the Iran-supported militias. “They have been an effective fighting force and they have greatly assisted Iraqi security forces in some of these military victories. … Now, they need to really be brought under the supervision and control of the armed forces.”

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