Maybe the Obama administration is too busy with the big picture to worry about details like rules of engagement in Iraq. But when U.S. forces are in harm's way no detail is unimportant if it raises the risk of more casualties.
There is every reason to believe there was insufficient high-level attention during the planning for new rules of engagement in Iraq. Indeed, the limiting rules imposed July 1 by the Iraqi government on U.S. forces in and near the nation's big cities appear to have come as a surprise to U.S. commanders on the ground.
American commanders have said the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement reached last year gives them the right to conduct operations in self-defense. But the Iraqi government does not agree on how that should be interpreted. This disagreement should have been identified and ironed out before U.S. forces ceased urban operations. It was not. Nor, apparently, did the Obama administration find out in advance what the new Iraqi rules would require. Or, if it did, it did not notify the forces in the field.
A judgment of "asleep at the switch" would appear to be in order.
The Washington Post reports that ever since the June 30 deadline for U.S. forces to cease patrolling Iraqi cities, the Iraqi government has hobbled their mobility and blocked their operations in urban settings. Iraqi army commanders have been told they may not conduct joint patrols with Americans and will be punished if they allow Americans any leeway.
U.S. officials told the Post there have been numerous disagreements between the two forces. The newspaper reported one clash in which a U.S. unit wanted and failed to get permission to send out a patrol to trap insurgents allegedly planning a mortar attack on a U.S. base from an adjacent Iraqi neighborhood named Amiriyah. "I understand you have your orders," the Iraqi commander told the American commander, "but I have my orders, too. You are not allowed to go inside of Amiriyah."
Iraqi soldiers have blocked American convoys, U.S. officials said.
An Iraqi colonel interviewed by The Associated Press put the situation vividly: "Now," he said, "the American soldiers are in prison-like bases as if they are under house arrest."
This is an intolerable situation, and an open invitation for insurgent attacks on U.S. bases.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking President Obama's support for new American investments in Iraq. That gives the president an opening to get this disagreement on rules of engagement ironed out. He should do so as soon as possible before U.S. forces suffer major harm.