Iraq inks deal to pave way for US return

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The Obama administration secured two diplomatic concessions from Iraq’s government on Monday: an immunity deal for U.S. special operations forces and a commitment from Iraq’s prime minister to begin forming a new government.

The immunity agreement paves the way for 300 special operations forces to begin training and advising Iraq’s army, which has repeatedly folded in the face of a charge by the radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that has taken over a territory stretching across both countries.

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The president has said the soldiers will assist Iraqi forces staring down the rapidly advancing Sunni Muslim group, which over the weekend captured a pair of pivotal border crossings with Syria and Jordan.

Officials say the advisers will also play a crucial role in improving American intelligence in the region, were the president to decide at some point to authorize military action.

Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had agreed Monday to begin the process of forming a new national government by July 1.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it is up to Iraq to choose its next leader, and says it remains hopeful that the divisive Maliki will not be selected to serve a third term. 

The White House is thought to favor a new leader who could reach out to Sunnis and Kurds who complain the Shiite Maliki purged moderate members of opposition factions from his government.

“When all of Iraq’s people can shape Iraq’s future, when the legitimate concerns and aspirations of all of Iraq’s communities — Sunni, Shiite, Kurd — are all respected, that is when Iraq is strongest,” Kerry said Monday during an unscheduled stop in Baghdad. “And that is when Iraq will be the most secure.”

The agreements provide a rare bit of good news for the administration, which has grappled with the swift progression of ISIS through Iraq.

On Monday, press secretary Josh Earnest conceded that the White House was “concerned about the security situation in Iraq” amid reports of additional ISIS gains.

But Earnest stressed that “this is a problem that’s going to be solved politically, and it’s going to require some very difficult choices to be made by Iraq’s political leaders.”

“Pursuing a political agenda that’s more inclusive, that gives every Iraqi a stake in that country’s prosperity in the future, is the only way that the nation of Iraq can present a united front to the extremists there that don’t have the best of intentions,” Earnest said.

Still, the emphasis placed by the administration on securing the amnesty agreement for American troops suggests U.S. soldiers could find themselves in trouble. 

Although administration officials insist that the mission, which would see the troops embedding at joint operation centers in Baghdad and Northern Iraq, is “non-combat,” they also acknowledge that the troops need legal protection. 

“There’s no question that we are putting people into harm’s way,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday. 

The agreement between the U.S. and Iraq would grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, who will instead be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

The agreement came via “diplomatic note,” an official exchange of communication between the two governments, and paves the way for the advisers to begin standing up teams of about a dozen to begin training and advising Iraqi security forces.

Defense officials say there is “no intent for these special operators to be engaged in direct combat.” 

“They don’t have an offensive role. They’re strictly there as advisers. So they should not, as a matter of routine, come into direct contact with the enemy,” Warren said. 

In another sign troops could find themselves in danger, special operations forces dispatched to Iraq will earn “imminent danger pay.” Soldiers deploying to Iraq will bank an additional $7.50 per day, for a maximum of $225 per month. 

The Obama administration was not able to obtain immunity for U.S. troops in 2011, leading to a full withdrawal of American troops.

Officials said this time it was different, given the smaller number of forces. 

“This is a much smaller number of advisers, a clear Iraqi request for us and appropriate assurances from the government,” State spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “So it’s just a very different situation.”

Meanwhile, U.S. officials also face an uphill climb in convincing Iraq’s factions to buy into a unified vision of the country. 

Over the weekend, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Washington of attempting to regain control of Iraq.

And the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region has called on Maliki to resign, and threatened to hold an independence referendum that would dissolve ties with the rest of Iraq.

“The time is now for the Kurdish people to determine their future,” Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said in a weekend interview with CNN. “We are living in an Iraq that is completely different from the Iraq of two weeks ago.”

In Baghdad, Kerry warned the country faced “an existential threat” and told leaders “the very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks.”

But Kerry also offered U.S. support if leaders were able to strike compromises as they assemble their new government. 

“The support will be intense and sustained and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective,” he said.