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Obama seeks human rights waiver on war funds

Obama seeks human rights waiver on war funds

The Obama administration has asked Congress repeatedly to exempt its military effort against the Islamic State from a longstanding ban on U.S. assistance to torturers and war criminals, highlighting doubts about finding “clean” American allies in a region wracked by ethnic animosity and religious extremism.

The latest proposal is included in a Nov. 10 request to Congress for $1.6 billion to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight IS as part of a $5.6 billion request to expand the U.S. mission in Iraq. The proposal sets up a fight with key Senate Democrats, who blocked two earlier requests for such an exemption, according to documents and interviews.

The 1997 Leahy Law, named after Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, bars the U.S. from funding military units suspected of “gross human rights violations,” which include murder, torture and extrajudicial imprisonment. Top military officers have long complained that the law slows their work with local forces, while human rights activists call it an important safeguard against U.S. complicity in abuses by unsavory allies.

The Obama administration’s written proposal includes a blanket exemption from the Leahy provisions and related constraints as it trains and equips Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight IS.

A spokesman for the National Security Council, Alistair Baskey, said the waiver was designed to cut through procurement red tape but “is not intended to alter our practices with respect to human rights-related laws, including the Leahy law.” However, the language allows the defense secretary to waive “any” provision that would “prohibit, restrict, limit or otherwise constrain” the war spending. Senate aides say there is no doubt it would waive the human rights requirements.

Iraqi government forces — the main intended recipients of the new aid — were notorious for human rights abuses under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In July, a United Nations human rights report documented allegations of atrocities by the government, including shelling civilians and executing Sunni detainees.

The Associated Press reported this week that Shiite militias backed by Baghdad are engaging in brutal acts as they battle IS, a Sunni Muslim group, and there are allegations of mass killings of Sunnis.

Leahy and other Democrats will oppose a blanket waiver, said aides who declined to be quoted by name.

“It would be short-sighted, irresponsible and harmful to our interests not to do everything feasible to prevent the misuse of U.S. assistance when it can mean the lives and deaths of innocent people,” Leahy told the AP.

Two similar exemption requests were quietly rebuffed by Congress in a defense bill passed in September, Senate aides said. That bill provided $500 million to train the Syrian rebels and a $1 billion counterterrorism fund for the Middle East.

In both cases, the Obama administration sought to exempt the funding from all human rights restrictions, records show.

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