U.S. soldiers preparing for raids study maps, examine photos of wanted men and check their weapons. Starting next month, they'll have to go see a judge.
For nearly six years, American troops have been free under a U.N. mandate to search any home and detain anyone deemed a security risk.
All that changes next month, when the mandate expires and a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement takes effect. From then on, troops must obtain Iraqi warrants for searches and arrests — and U.S. officers say the requirement is one of the biggest headaches in complying with the new rules.
"It takes away the option of saying, 'Hey, this guy just came into town and we want him and we want him now,'" said Capt. Tom Smith, a company commander on his second tour in Iraq. "For some of us who were here before, it feels a bit slow."
U.S. troops are scrambling to learn the ins and outs of an Iraqi legal system with unfamiliar rules and procedures, a cumbersome bureaucracy and a shortage of judges after years of violence.
The Americans are having to turn to their Iraqi colleagues for help in navigating the system. They're also trying to improve it, working with the Iraqi investigators to enhance their evidence-gathering techniques, such as the use of biometrics and forensics.
Iraq forces already need warrants
The Iraqi government began requiring its own security forces to obtain warrants after a series of offensives in the spring against Shiite extremists drew sharp criticism from rival political parties complaining their members were being unfairly targeted.
In recent operations, that has meant flying judges from Baghdad to targeted cities to expedite the process.
The U.S. military is about to face the same rules. The security pact states that as of Jan. 1, American troops may not search homes or make arrests without warrants "except in the case of active combat operations."
That will be a big change for the U.S. military — one of several required under the security pact that allows the Americans to stay for three more years but imposes stricter oversight on their behavior.
The agreement was ratified by Iraq's presidential council on Dec. 4, and U.S. and Iraqi commanders are now meeting to lay out guidelines for how the new rules will work on the ground.
U.S. soldiers — particularly special forces — have in the past staged raids without consulting the Iraqis when going after time-sensitive targets. Commanders have long been concerned about extremists infiltrating the Iraqi security forces.
"It's a challenge and we're working through it," said Lt. Col. Jim Bradford, commander of the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment from Fort Riley, Kan. "Warrants come from multiple locations and so we're working through that as well."
Process causes concern
It's not just the need for warrants that's raising concern. It's also the process.
To get a warrant in Mahmoudiya, troops will have to appeal to four Iraqi judicial investigators in the town, unless the Iraqi army brigade happens to have a warrant for the same individual.
Bradford, 39, of Lynchburg, Tenn., said his battalion began preparing for the shift shortly after taking over operations in Mahmoudiya last month. His soldiers are trying to match up their list of wanted men with those of the Iraqi security forces and obtain warrants before the end of the month.
"It's just a matter of making sure that our warrants match their warrants and everything is correct," he said. "They have been doing warrant-based operations since we've been here."
Rules cover 'high value targets'
Soldiers will need warrants not only for low-level insurgents but also so-called "high value targets," meaning key figures in Sunni and Shiite militant groups.
"If we had information about a high-level al-Qaida in Iraq guy, for us to go after him we would work the warrant piece," he said. "What we're trying to do now ... is everyone that we consider to be a high-value target and the Iraqi army considers to be a valuable target — is to work all of those warrants now," he said.
For the U.S. soldiers, that means spending a lot of time at the copy machine as they try to organize the warrants already held by the Iraqis, said Smith, 29, of Norman, Okla.
He acknowledged that the system will take some getting used to.
"Their system is very paper-based, whereas we like to have it all in an Excel spreadsheet," he said, standing in his base office underneath a strategic map and a red Christmas stocking hung on the wall.
Capt. Jessica Donckers, the commander of the 65th Military Police Company Airborne from Fort Bragg, N.C., is focusing her efforts on training Iraqi police to work with judges on getting warrants as well.
The number of police detainees in Mahmoudiya has been reduced by 50 percent in the last two weeks because of improvements in streamlining the process, said Donckers, 29, of Marquette, Mich.
The rule would not affect troops under fire or facing an imminent threat, such as a suspected suicide bomber, although evidence and witnesses would be needed to support any action.
"Things will not change for the Iraqi army, but it will be a huge change for the U.S. troops to need an Iraqi warrant," Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said. "The change will be for the best and it will stop the random raids."