State Department: U.S. Not ‘Overly Concerned’ About Iraq Detaining ‘A Handful of U.S. Contractors’

By Edwin Mora | January 17, 2012 | 8:06 PM EST

Contractors in Iraq. (AP Photo)

( -- The United States is not “overly concerned” about the Iraqi government detaining a “handful of U.S. contractors” over visas and paperwork, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Tuesday.

Back on Jan. 11, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued  an “emergency warning” for U.S. citizens in Iraq, informing them “not [to] attempt movements about the country in the absence of valid, current permits and paperwork.”

On Sunday, Jan. 15, the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), an organization that represents contractors in Iraq, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to intervene regarding the Iraqi government’s detention of foreign contractors, the Financial Times reported.

At Tuesday’s briefing, in response to a question about the contractors, Toner said:  “Our understanding is there’s been a handful of U.S. contractors that have been involved in this. Apparently, what’s going on here – and obviously, this is a situation that we’re watching closely – but this appears to be nothing more than Iraqi officials who are certainly operating out of an abundance of caution given the recent spate of violence in Baghdad and surroundings in carrying out their duties.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark toner (AP Photo)

“Obviously, the old U.S.-Iraqi security agreement expired on December 31st so there’s been a number of adjustments in visa accreditation and vehicle registration, weapons permitting, as well as other procedures,” said Toner.  “So all this is coming into play. But all these people have been released after – or let go or allowed to continue after being detained.  So we’re not overly concerned right now.  We think this is, again, added bureaucracy coupled with, as I said, an abundance of caution.”

Later, Toner added, “As of December 31st, we’ve embarked on a new relationship with the Iraqi Government. There are bureaucratic elements of this relationship that need to be refined and worked out and obviously coupled with a very changeable security environment, that these individuals, that – rather the Iraqi officials are trying to maintain security but also make sure that they’re following the letter of the law.  So I wouldn’t read too much into these detentions, if you will.”

The spokesman could not specifically say whether the “handful of U.S. contractors” who have been detained include U.S. citizens or individuals from other countries working for U.S. government contractors.

“Whether we’re talking about American citizens,” said Toner, “my understanding, it’s been a handful, but a handful of who I’m not sure.”

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad asked that “all U.S. citizens living and working in Iraq carefully review their immigration status and other permits to operate in Iraq and not attempt movements about the country in the absence of valid, current permits and paperwork.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

“The U.S. Embassy is aware of cases where discrepancies in permits or paperwork have resulted in legal action, including detention, by Iraqi police and other entities,” read the statement.  “Detentions often last 24-96 hours or more. The Embassy’s ability to respond to situations in which U.S. citizens are arrested or otherwise detained throughout Iraq is limited, including in and around Baghdad.”

According to the Financial Times, in the letter to State Secretary Clinton, the ISOA stated, “We want to ensure that you are aware of the seriousness of this issue and the impact it is having on our members’ ability to support the transition and government programs in Iraq and ask your assistance in working with the government of Iraq to reach a prompt solution.”

“The government of Iraq has neither renewed 2011 visas nor issued new 2012 visas,” the organization told Clinton in the letter, adding that, “Approved movements have been subject to stops, detentions, and confiscation of equipment without justification.”

According to the Financial Times, ISOA President David Brooks estimated that the number of foreign contractors detained by the Iraqi government in “recent weeks” is in the “low hundreds.”

Nevertheless, the State Department today downplayed the seriousness of the Iraqi government’s actions.

There are “some very clear tensions underway in Iraq on the political scene. They’re working through these tensions,” said Toner. “It’s important that they continue, all sides of the political spectrum talk to each other and work constructively together.”