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U.S. Troop Immunity A Sticking Point In Iraq Talks


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

We'll head to Iraq now to take a closer look at the reasons behind the U.S. decision to pull all American troops out of the country by the end of the year. The two sides are talking about whether some kind of training force will return to Iraq next year. As NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, the sticking point has been whether American troops can face trial in Iraqi courts.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: President Obama might have been the first to break the news, but it was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who took the credit here.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Nobody thought we could do it, Maliki said in a news conference aired on state TV. People thought America was coming to occupy Iraq forever.

For months, the U.S. and Iraq had been negotiating to keep some U.S. troops here next year. But the negotiations broke down over the question of immunity. The U.S. said for any troops to remain in Iraq, they'd have to be granted full immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Because such immunity was granted by Iraq's parliament before, legal experts believed that's how it needed to be done again.

U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said that up until August, the two sides thought they could work out a deal. But then talks failed when it became clear Iraqi politicians didn't want such a sensitive issue to be played out in public.

AMBASSADOR JAMES JEFFREY: There's nothing that I have done that is more contentious than negotiating these kind of agreements anywhere, under any conditions, at any time.

MCEVERS: Jeffrey seemed confident that despite the fact that Iraq still faces challenges, a military presence isn't the only solution.

JEFFREY: Sometimes using military force for political or general strategic or regional security issues works. Sometimes it doesn't.

MCEVERS: At a recent flag ceremony in the city of Tikrit, Major General David Perkins marked the end of U.S. command and control in northern Iraq.

MAJOR GENERAL DAVID PERKINS: We are handing over control and responsibility to the government of Iraq, to the Iraqi security forces. Here on this base, it is going to be the Iraqi Air College, their air force academy. The United States will have a small amount of trainers here.

MCEVERS: Those trainers would mostly be private contractors. They come as part of the package when Iraq buys American fighter jets and tanks. The U.S. and Iraq are talking about finding a way to bring back some uniformed soldiers next year, mainly to train Iraqis on how to use those fighter jets and tanks in combat situations.

Outside the fortified embassies and army bases and back in the real Iraq, we drive through Baghdad's notorious slum, Sadr City. A resident shows us where this teenager was killed, that house was bombed during the war.

Inside one concrete room, a woman in her twenties named Um Karrar sits shrouded in black on a carpeted floor. She tells us what happened one night in 2008.

UM KARRAR: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: It was hot, and there was no electricity. So she, her husband and two babies went to sleep on the roof. They woke up to the sound of shooting. American tanks and helicopters were sweeping the area, hunting suspected militants. Um Karrar's husband tried to hustle the children downstairs, but...

KARRAR: (Through Translator) Before he could reach us, they shot him in the head.

MCEVERS: Um Karrar shouted her husband's name.

KARRAR: (Through Translator) He didn't answer me. So I just pulled up his head. So and after checking his pulse and his heart, he was dead.

MCEVERS: It's deaths like these that made the question of any renewed immunity for U.S. soldiers so difficult.

SADIQA JAAFAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We appreciate what the Americans did for us in the beginning, says the victim's mother, Sadiqa Jaafar. But then they did things in a brutal and illegal way.

She says she's glad some Iraqi leaders, like the Iranian-backed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, pushed so hard for American troops to leave. What if they tried to stay, we ask?

KARRAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We will fight them, Um Karrar says. If they are here, we will fight them.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.