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Pending Talks on Pact for US Troops in Iraq Stirs Controversy


The coming negotiations on a long-term agreement to cover the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq are generating controversy even before they start. But U.S. officials say much of the concern is overblown. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Analysts, members of congress and presidential candidates have all expressed concern about the coming talks, aimed at drafting an arrangement to replace the United Nations mandate for foreign troops in Iraq, which expires at the end of this year. News reports have quoted officials as saying the agreement will establish permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. And the White House announcement about the talks last November set the top goal as helping the government of Iraq "in defending its democratic system against internal and external threats."

That would be a big commitment, but the New York Times reported Friday the U.S. position in the negotiations will not involve security guarantees for the Iraqi government.

Pentagon officials say discussions have only just begun about what the actual U.S. positions will be in the negotiations with Iraq, and it is too soon to say what the agreement might contain. Still, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke this week about what he believes it will not contain.

"I think it's pretty clear that such an agreement would not talk about force levels," he noted. "It would not involve - we have no interest in permanent bases. I think the way to think about the framework agreement is [as] an approach to normalizing the relationship between the United States and Iraq," he said.

On Friday, Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman provided some further details of the prospective agreement, saying it will include references to the mission U.S. troops will have.

"Clearly, the long-term strategic relationship with Iraq will address things like U.S. military forces and what they would do and the types of protections that are important," he said. "But, the overriding, underlying position or principle, so to speak, is that this agreement will be committed to strengthening the Iraqi government, helping them to build on their own security forces and to continue to press the fight against al-Qaida."

The White House announcement also referred to political, diplomatic, cultural and economic aspects of the agreement.

Whitman acknowledged such a document would go well beyond the usual Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the United States negotiates with all countries that host U.S. troops. There are currently more than 80 such agreements in place around the world.

"Clearly, Iraq is a little different than most countries where we have forces, because we are engaged in a conflict in Iraq," he added. "So, will there be unique aspects to this? Yes. Every SOFA tends to be unique based on the conditions and the discussions with the sovereign government of that nation."

Another concern expressed about the coming negotiations, is that Status of Forces Agreements are usually straightforward, somewhat legalistic, documents and, by law, do not require congressional approval. With this accord apparently destined to go beyond that, some say it already looks more like a "treaty." A treaty would need the approval of two thirds of the members of the Senate, which is controlled by President Bush's political opponents in the Democratic Party.

Secretary Gates spoke about that issue at his news conference this week.

"I haven't been involved in any discussions of what kind of form the agreement would take or anything else," he added. "I do know that there's a strong commitment inside the administration to consult very closely with the Congress on this, but without any idea of what the form of an agreement is going to be right now, I think it's premature to talk about congressional agreement or executive agreement. I think we just don't know."

Experts have also expressed concerns about what the Iraqi parliament might require if it is asked to approve a long-term security treaty with the United States.

Whatever the document is eventually called, and whatever method is used to approve it, State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said this week it will not "tie the hands"' of a future president or congress by establishing force levels or specific operational missions. He said as always such decisions will be made by military officers and their commander in chief, the president, at the time they need to be made.

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