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To meet June deadline, US and Iraqis redraw city borders

'What is a city' is one question the US and Iraq must answer as they try to balance a requirement that US combat forces withdraw from cities next month and the need for US help to maintain security.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2009



Baghdad

On a map of Baghdad, the US Army's Forward Operating Base Falcon is clearly within city limits.

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Except that Iraqi and American military officials have decided it's not. As the June 30 deadline for US soldiers to be out of Iraqi cities approaches, there are no plans to relocate the roughly 3,000 American troops who help maintain security in south Baghdad along what were the fault lines in the sectarian war.

"We and the Iraqis decided it wasn't in the city," says a US military official. The base on the southern outskirts of Baghdad's Rasheed district is an example of the fluidity of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreed to late last year, which orders all US combat forces out of Iraqi cities, towns, and villages by June 30.

"We consider the security agreement a living document," says a senior US commander. With six weeks to go, US and Iraqi commanders are sitting down in joint security committees to determine how they can comply with the decree that all US combat forces withdraw from populated areas by the end of June and still maintain the requirement to assist Iraq in fighting the insurgency and maintaining security and stability.

"[The Iraqis are] clear in their intention, less clear in their implementation," says the senior military official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Complexity of operating under SOFA

The security agreement, which took effect five months ago and charts the US-Iraqi relationship for years to come, is also being tested in murkier waters, such as the US right to self-defense.

A US-led raid in the southern Iraqi city of Kut last month, in which an Iraqi woman was killed in the crossfire, prompted protests in the streets. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the operation a crime and demanded that the American soldiers involved be turned over to Iraqi courts, saying the raid violated the terms of the security agreement.

US officials say they had valid warrants for the operation targeting suspected members of Iranian-funded Shiite militias involved in weapons smuggling. One suspect was killed in the raid and six others detained before Iraqi authorities ordered their release.

One US military official said that although Iraqi authorities had been notified of the raid in advance, those authorities maintained they had not approved it. He said the US side believed it was exercising its right to self-defense under the agreement when the raid turned violent.

The US military offered condolences and was believed to have paid compensation to the family of the woman killed.

"Kut shone a brighter light on the complexity of what we are facing," says the senior US commander.

US extension in volatile areas?

A major question ahead of the June 30 deadline – whether US troops will be asked to stay in the volatile cities of Mosul and those in Diyala Province – is still unanswered.

Senior Iraqi military officials are expected to recommend to Mr. Maliki that US combat forces remain in those areas to help fight an ongoing insurgency. Maliki publicly has said he will not extend the deadline but privately is believed to be willing to consider it. As commander in chief of the Iraqi Security Forces, Maliki has the final decision on whether to ask US forces to stay.

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