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Daily Column
US Papers Wed: GI Arrest Powers About to Change
Deaths of US Troops Down, An Iraqi City "Divided, and Defined, by Its Walls"
By DANIEL W. SMITH 12/31/2008 02:00 AM ET
On the eve of the SOFA taking effect, the news is still light, but some of the changes which will occur on this landmark New Year's Day in Iraq are explored. Also, visit a Baghdad checkpoint.

From Baghdad
Campbell Robertson of the New York Times reports on one aspect of the new rules which U.S. troops will be governed under in Iraq when the SOFA, or status of forces agreement, between the two countries goes into effect at midnight tonight – that of the American military’s curtailed abilities to arrest and detain Iraqis. Arrest warrants, issued by Iraqi judges, will now be needed. Custody of detainees must also be turned over to Iraqi security forces within 24 hours of arrest.

Robertson uses troops from Company C of the First Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, who operate in Baghdad’s volatile Sadr City as an example of soldiers who the new rules will substantially affect. He calls them “the most prolific in the company when it came to arrests, seizing more than half of those captured in the past seven months,” and some of its members speak of the difficulty and apprehension with which the transition is being made.

From the beginning of the war, “tens of thousands of Iraqis were detained and some held for years,” something that has been, at the very least, controversial. The necessity for securing warrants is called “a change welcomed as an important step toward Iraqi sovereignty but one that also raises concerns that the longer and more complicated arrest process could jeopardize recent gains in safety here.”

Orders have come down, though, that there is a bit of wiggle-room for the troops, for good or for bad.
A warrant is still needed for an arrest, the company was told, but something called a detention order could be obtained, sort of a warrant after the fact. This option, which still requires that evidence be presented to a judge within 24 hours, was spoken of with relief by American officers, who worried that suspects could escape capture while detective work was being done.

...The security agreement also states that a warrant is not needed to search a house in “cases of actual combat operations,” or when troops are in immediate danger, exceptions that could be interpreted broadly.
Another issue is that many witnesses whose testimony will be needed to secure the warrants simply don’t trust Iraqi security forces. Even if a witness has no love for Americans, at least they were above the fray of sectarian and political retribution.

Says one of the U.S. soldiers, “It’s all being defined as we go.”

Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post writes of the most prominent visible feature throughout the neighborhoods of post-war Baghdad – concrete blast-walls that “isolate, segregate and demarcate”.

It is a “slice of life” piece that gives of a feeling for what it is like at a checkpoint on Baghdad’s Sadiya Street, surrounded by the walls, rather than give facts and figures, but that is its strength. Descriptions of some people passing through the checkpoint are given. An interesting example of the hatred many feel for the walls, combined with a secondary use for them, is given.
"The walls are the most hated thing. I swear to God, they're despised," said Hussein Abbas Hassan, plastering posters for a candidate with his two sons, Yasser and Samir. "I wish God would descend from heaven and tear them down."

Until He does, though, they serve a purpose. Since morning, Hassan and his sons had circled the neighborhoods of Sadiya and nearby Dora, gluing 2,000 posters to the concrete. "As long as they're here, we'll put the posters on them."
Sam Dagher of the New York Times writes an interesting story of the quieter than expected New Year’s Eve that Baghdad is about to mark. Parties around the city had been scheduled, in restaurants, hotels, and social clubs. They had been anticipated with extra fervor by many, due to the much improved safety, itself something to celebrate. Then, the government ordered the venues to cancel the celebrations.

The parties were canceled because New Year’s Eve coincides with Muharram, a mournful religious period for Shiites. The government, which is dominated by religious Shiite parties, issued the order on Sunday.
A police commander in Baghdad said “These places will be closed in accordance with Iraqi law,” and added, “We have no objection to those who want to have a dinner party without fanfare, noise, dancing and music.”
Two Interior Ministry officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, said that several police officers sympathetic to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr had also been “politely” informing Baghdad liquor stores that recently reopened that they must close for the holiday.
As Dagher points out, although Muharram marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, in A.D. 680 for Shi’as, is a actually a joyous time for Sunnis.

“Everyone is free, but I will not have parties and singing,” said Dhia Namnam, a popular Baghdad D.J. and party promoter, who is Shiite. “If you want to have a party, do it at home. Most Muslims here are Shiites.”

USA Today’s Andrea Stone gives a basic rundown of the situation in Iraq – from this year’s lowest death rate of U.S. troops since 2003, to the transition of Iraqi security forces taking on additional responsibilities. Quotes from Gen. Ray Odierno are peppered throughout, with the top American commander in Iraq warning “against complacency” and saying things like "We're trying to make sure we don't have any seams in our transition."

Odierno does point out “brewing tensions in between Arabs and Kurds in the north, interference by Iran and simmering internal political tensions pose potential for large-scale attacks against U.S. forces,” and Stone mentions that daily bombings are still a threat in Iraq, mostly to civilians, but the improvements which mark the year’s end are the focus.

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, no Iraq coverage.

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