By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Newspapers
BAGHDAD, Iraq — As U.S. troops prepared their final departure from Iraq, NATO regretfully closed down its small but highly effective training mission in Baghdad Saturday after negotiations over extending the mission stalled over Iraq granting foreign military personnel immunity from prosecution.
Even as the last vestiges of the international military presence were leaving, there was high drama in Baghdad’s international zone, as troops and tanks surrounded the homes of three prominent Sunni politicians — Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, Finance Minister Rafie al-Essawi and Ayad Samarraie, a former speaker of the Parliament, eyewitnesses said.
Three members of Hashimi’s security detail were arrested in recent days on suspicion of involvement in a November suicide bomb attack on the Iraqi parliament, according to an aide to Hashimi.
In a sign that Iraq’s political dysfunction was worsening just days after American forces formally ended their mission in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Qasim Atta, spokesman for the Baghdad operations command, was expected to make an announcement that implicated the politicians in the bombing, according to western diplomats.
Osama Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of the parliament and ostensibly the target of the bombing, had pleaded with the government to postpone any public airing of its evidence, according to an official in the interior ministry.
Earlier Saturday, the Iraqiya party, headed by Ayad Allawi, a political rival who shares power with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, walked out of the parliament but said it was not quitting the government.
The U.S. Embassy Saturday night urged the Iraqi government to conduct its investigation into the allegations “in a transparent manner in accordance with Iraqi law.”
As the political drama was unfolding, NATO and Iraqi officials said that the legal issue in extending the seven-year NATO mission was whether the Iraqi parliament would have to approve a status-of-forces agreement that would grant immunity from prosecution in an Iraqi court should any of the NATO military personnel commit a crime under Iraqi law.
Earlier this year, during negotiations over maintaining several thousand U.S. military trainers after the end of 2011, the United States had insisted that the Iraqi parliament approve any agreement. Iraqi lawmakers balked, citing what they perceived as U.S. abuses of power in the years following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
NATO did not require parliamentary approval to cover the 110 trainers it intended to keep in Iraq, and it had instead prepared an exchange of letters with the Iraqi government to take the place of parliamentary approval.
This time the Iraqi government was split. Following an internal debate over whether the executive branch or parliament would grant the necessary immunities, Iraqi legal personnel ruled that it had to go before the parliament, the NATO contingent’s commander, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caswell Jr., told reporters.
“The final decision was that it had to be treated … similar to the way the Iraqi government worked the United States immunities,” he said. It was assumed that if pressed, the parliament would reject immunity for NATO troops as it would have for U.S. forces.
“Everybody wanted it to continue,” Gen. Babakir Zebari, chief of Iraq’s joint forces, told reporters at the end-of-mission ceremony, blaming a “legalism” for the decision to halt the mission.
The NATO contingent, consisting of senior officers at the major, lieutenant colonel and colonel levels from 12 countries, trained some 10,000 federal police and 5,000 Iraqi Army soldiers over the past seven years. Caswell said the mission is known around NATO as “one of the greatest success stories of NATO that nobody has heard about.”
U.S. Admiral James W. Stavridis, the supreme allied commander in Europe, also expressed regrets in a letter read at the ceremony. He said “there were hopes to continue the mission beyond 2011” and added: “We are concluding earlier than we had hoped.”