By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq has given assurances to the United States that U.S. special operations forces that President Barack Obama has ordered into the country will be shielded from possible prosecution in Iraqi courts, U.S. officials said on Monday.
With the agreement, Washington has overcome a major hurdle as it rushes to bolster the U.S. presence in Iraq in the face of militant advances by Sunni Islamists from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an al Qaeda splinter group.
"The commander in chief would not make a decision to put our men and women in harm's way without getting some necessary assurances," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
The Pentagon said on Monday it hoped the U.S. forces could help improve a still-murky U.S. intelligence assessment of the situation in Iraq, including about the type and quantity of U.S.-made weapons ISIL has seized from the Iraqi military.
So far, there is no evidence ISIL militants have secured sophisticated U.S.-made arms, said Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. He added, however, that small arms and possibly U.S.-made Humvee vehicles had been taken.
President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he will deploy up to 300 military advisers to Iraq in non-combat roles and would consider targeted strikes against the insurgents.
Obama's decision to send troops back into Iraq revived an old question that was at the center of his decision to withdraw thousands of American forces in 2011.
At the time, the Obama administration attributed the decision to pull all troops out of Iraq to the difficulty of clinching a Status of Forces Agreement, which also would have kept troops from being tried in local courts.
The new agreement struck with Baghdad via diplomatic note is far less sweeping and appeared far less formal than the SOFA. But the U.S. government said the assurances were enough, given the scope and size of the mission.
"With this agreement, we will be able to start establishing the first few assessment teams," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. The Pentagon said on Friday the first teams would be drawn from forces already in Iraq under the U.S. embassy mission, and that additional teams would arrive from outside the country shortly after.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the agreement would give protections similar to the ones already enjoyed by U.S. diplomatic personnel in Baghdad.
"Our troops will have the legal protections they need to perform their mission," Harf said.
"They would, were something to arise, face due process for violations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Monday, said U.S. support for Iraqi security forces will be "intense and sustained" to help them combat the Islamist insurgency that has swept through the country's north and west.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and David Alexander; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)