WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expressed confidence on Friday it would secure legal safeguards for U.S. forces arriving in Iraq over the next week to shield them from the possibility of prosecution in Iraqi courts, despite America's inability do so three years ago.
President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he will deploy up to 300 military advisers to Iraq in the face of advances by an al Qaeda splinter group and would consider targeted strikes against insurgents.
But Obama's decision to send troops back into Iraq in non-combat roles revived an old question that was at the centre of his decision to withdraw thousands of American forces in 2011.
At the time, the Obama administration attributed the decision to pull all troops out of Iraq to the difficulty of clinching a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have protected American troops from the risk of being tried in local courts.
But, as the Obama administration seeks to help Iraq stamp out a renewed militant threat, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby on Friday indicated that a SOFA, which can involve long, contentious negotiations, was not necessary.
Instead of keeping thousands of forces in Iraq, the United States now plans to send just up to 300 on what Kirby called a "discrete" and "temporary" mission.
"We don't need a SOFA," Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
Kirby added that officials were seeking legal protections in writing for those forces, but neither the Pentagon nor the State Department detailed what those protections might look like.
"(Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) is absolutely committed to making sure that our troops have the legal protections, and he would not do that on a nod and a wink," Kirby said.
The U.S. advisory mission will start very small. The first couple of 12-person teams of U.S. special operations forces will be pulled from the U.S. embassy mission, Kirby said, meaning they likely did not need any additional protections since they were already covered by diplomatic guarantees.
Between three and five additional assessment teams will be arriving in Iraq "in the next week or so," he said.
"This is a discrete, measured, temporary arrangement," Kirby said.
(Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Storey and Ken Wills)