300 Troops Head to Iraq with Immunity Assurances

The Iraq government has provided sufficient assurances on immunity from local law for Special Forces to undertake their advisory mission with the reeling Iraqi army, Pentagon officials said Monday.

The Defense Department has not yet received in writing immunity agreements for the troops, but "Iraq has provided acceptable assurances" for the 300 Special Forces troops to begin moving into Baghdad, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

Kirby said Iraq "has committed itself to providing protections for our personnel equivalent to those provided to personnel who were in country before the crisis," when troops were subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice and not Iraqi law.

A formal agreement on the legal protections was being worked out between the State Department and the government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Pentagon officials said.

Last week, President Obama announced that up to 300 Special Forces will deploy to Iraq to advise the Iraqi national security forces on combating the advancing militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

None of the Special Forces troops has arrived yet and the first contingents were not expected before the end of this week, Pentagon officials said.

In the meantime, U.S. troops already in Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will take up advisory roles until the Special Forces troops arrived, but "that hasn't happened yet," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

Warren also said that the U.S. has not sent Iraq any arms shipments since ISIL fighters attacking in pickup trucks began sweeping across large swaths of northern and western Iraq earlier this month.

Warren said that the U.S. was expediting shipments under current sales agreements with Iraq to include Hellfire missiles, but he could not give a date on when the shipments might arrive.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad and immediately went into lengthy meetings with Maliki on the deteriorating situation on the ground.

Over the weekend, ISIL reportedly took over several crossing points on the borders with Jordan and Syria, effectively erasing lines on a map of the Mideast drawn by France and Britain after World War I.

Kerry said he pressed Maliki to form a more inclusive government of the Shia, Sunni and Kurd communities to face the "existential threat" posed by ISIL. U.S. "support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together, it will be effective," Kerry said at a Baghdad press briefing.

U.S. officials have said that potential airstrikes by U.S. forces in the region were contingent upon Iraq forming a more inclusive government.

A U.S. government official traveling with Kerry told reporters that Iraqi government officials were "very fearful of their situation." A lot of people they've known, on the Sunni and the Shia side, over the last ten days have been killed.

The official also said that the shortcomings of the Iraqi military, which was trained and equipped by the U.S. at a cost of $25 billion, have become "very apparent. They're very limited in the air. They have two Cessna planes that can fire Hellfire missiles. That's it, and they can't be everywhere at once."

Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the ISIL takeover of the Syria and Jordan border crossings was especially troubling.

"It represents an opportunity for ISIL to create safe havens," Cartwright said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" program. "They're in a very commanding position," Cartwright said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com

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