WASHINGTON - The prison abuse scandal has fed an international drive to curb power and freedom of action of U.S. forces in Iraq once a caretaker government gains political control of the country on June 30.
France's foreign minister has urged that the new government exercise control over the Iraqi armed forces that are being trained and equipped by the United States, reversing a requirement that makes them subordinate to American commanders.
In an interview published yesterday in Le Monde, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Iraqi leaders "must, at a minimum, be consulted" on U.S. military actions. Iraqi Defense Minister Ali Allawi has demanded that Iraq's forces be "independently commanded" by Iraqis.
Such restraints could make U.S. commanders subject to increased Iraqi political pressure to curtail or halt planned military actions against insurgents, in effect tying their hands, or, conceivably, producing clashes between U.S. and Iraqi troops.
A senior Bush administration official acknowledged yesterday that the exposure of abuse and torture in U.S. detention facilities adds a potential strain to relations between the U.S. military and the incoming Iraqi government. "It makes it harder; there's no question," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The amount of control granted to U.S. troops has become a key issue in closed-door meetings of the United Nations Security Council, where France and Russia, which wield veto power, are pushing for restraints on U.S.-led coalition troops.
European officials say that the prison abuse makes it important to show that the transfer of power to Iraqis is not mere symbolism. The issue is likely to be raised today at a meeting in Washington of foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
As the top military commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has control of all coalition forces as well as of the Iraqi troops being groomed to assume an ever-greater role in stabilizing the country.
The Bush administration says Iraq will regain its status as a sovereign country June 30, when political power shifts to an interim government and the civilian Coalition Provisional Authority, led by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, is dissolved. But the United States insists that a so-called unified command, led by American officers, needs to be maintained until Iraqis are able to ensure their own security.
U.S. military leaders have chafed in the past at political and diplomatic limits to their freedom of action. Long after the Vietnam War, many U.S. politicians vowed that American soldiers would never again be sent to fight wars they were not allowed to win.
Administration officials insist that most Iraqis want American troops to stay until Iraqi forces are strong enough to secure the country. But polls inside Iraq show a rising resentment of the U.S. military.
An internal provisional authority poll, first reported yesterday by the Washington Post, found that 82 percent of Iraqis disapprove of the U.S. and allied forces in Iraq.
Uncertainty over the legal authority governing the U.S. presence in Iraq after June 30 was illustrated yesterday on Capitol Hill when two senior officials gave seemingly contradictory answers when asked if Iraq could compel U.S. forces to leave.
During a hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, pressed Marc Grossman, the State Department's third-ranking official, for a yes-or-no answer to the question, "If they ask us to leave, we will leave, will we not?" Grossman eventually said yes.
Lt. Gen. Walter L. Sharp, policy and plans director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that whether U.S. forces stay or go is not up to the Iraqis because Iraq's interim constitution and a U.N. resolution adopted last year authorizing a multinational force gave U.S.-led troops responsibility for Iraqi security for the immediate future. Grossman later agreed that this was correct.
The interim constitution is supposed to form the legal basis for Iraqi affairs until elections are held in December or January for a national assembly, which will form a new government and draft a permanent constitution.
The legal authority over American troops takes on added importance after exposure of prison abuse. U.S. troops stationed overseas usually operate under a status of forces agreement, which sets the guidelines under which they operate and gives them immunity from prosecution under laws of the host country for any actions they take in the line of duty.
U.S. officials say they don't plan to negotiate such an agreement with Iraq until after the elections. In the meantime, they will rely on provisions of the Security Council resolution cited by Sharp as well as on the interim constitution and a separate provisional authority order for legal authority and protection, officials say.
But the U.N. resolution is likely to be overtaken by a new one timed for the handover. The body that approved the interim constitution, the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council, lacks credibility with Iraqis, analysts say.
Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution military analyst, said the U.S. forces' lack of popularity as registered in polls is "remarkable."
By insisting on retaining total command of all troops in Iraq, the Bush administration "may be holding on to an absolute for so long that in the end we'll be shown the door," he said.
"I would hope ... that we would not take down Fallujah or enter Najaf without consultation with, and hopefully the blessing of, a new Iraqi government," O'Hanlon said.
U.S. forces bowed to Iraqi and U.N. pressure last month when they halted a drive to capture Iraqis responsible for the murder of four U.S. civilian contractors in Fallujah and agreed to have the city patrolled by Iraqi troops.
Walter B. Slocombe, an undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration who has advised the provisional authority, predicts "there will be a system for consultation and exchanging views" between the top U.S. military commander and Iraqi leaders.