A Washington Post article today reads: "In an early test of its imminent sovereignty, Iraq's new government has been resisting a U.S. demand that thousands of foreign contractors here be granted immunity from Iraqi law, in the same way as U.S. military forces are now immune, according to Iraqi sources."
From the viewpoint of a historian of the Middle East like myself, this prospect sets off all the alarms. Through two centuries of colonial rule, there may have been no issue more irritating that extraterritoriality such as this, where one finds, according to the Post, "a special legal category, not subject to military justice and beyond the reach of Iraq's justice system." In both China and the Middle East the imposition of extraterritoriality led time and again to major problems.
Perhaps the most recent of these was in 1964 in Iran, when the shah's willingness to grant diplomatic immunity to American military advisers, their support staffs, and their families was exploited by Ayatollah Khomeini to rally the population against the shah. He responded with what Roy Mottahedeh in his 1985 book, Mantle of the Prophet, calls (pp. 245-46) one of the most influential sermons of his career, equating this "filthy vote" with the "enslavement of Iran." Passing the immunity law, Khomeini went on to state with his characteristic double-barreled rhetoric,
has acknowledged that Iran is a colony; it has given America a document attesting that the nation of Muslims is barbarous, it has struck out all our Islamic and national glories with a black line. … If the shah should run over an American dog, he would be called to account but if an American cook should run over the shah, no one has any claims against him. … I proclaim that this shameful vote of the Majles [parliament] is in contradiction to Islam and has no legality.
Mottahedeh writes that Khomeini's "appeal spoke to the feelings of enormous numbers of Iranians." His political career was thus launched, culminating in his seizure of power fifteen years later.
The U.S. government runs the risk of launching another Islamist career if it insists on extraterritoriality in Iraq. (June 14, 2004)