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Bush Administration Assures Democrats on Iraq Intentions

The Bush administration said Friday a proposed agreement with Iraq governing the use of U.S. forces in that country would not tie the hands of a future President on Iraq policy. The envisaged deal, to take effect at the beginning of next year, has become an election year political issue. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Negotiations with Iraq on the forces agreement are not due to begin for several weeks. But the issue is already politically-charged, amid allegations from Democrats that an accord reached by the Bush administration might tie the hands of the next President on key Iraq issues.

The United Nations mandate that governs operations of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq expires at the end of this year. Both the Bush administration and the Iraqi government want to replace it with a bilateral agreement clarifying the legal status of U.S. troops in Iraq.

State Department and Defense officials say the accord would be little different from the so-called SOFA, or status of forces agreements, the United State already has with countries that host a U.S. troops, such as South Korea and Japan.

However leading Democrats say the accord with Iraq, which would not require Senate approval like a formal treaty, could commit the United States to a long-term presence in that country.

Democratic Senator and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, among others, has suggested that President Bush might try to use a forces agreement with Iraq to lock-in long-term U.S. involvement in Iraq, and that any agreement should be subject to Senate approval.

Those concerns were raised again Friday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "President Bush wants cut a deal that will guarantee our presence well past his term. The President is put on notice: he cannot do this unilaterally. Any long-term deal must meet the approval of Congress. And the majority of Congress wants to responsibly end the war so we can turn to other critical challenges, like Afghanistan," he said.

Senior administration officials deny any such intent. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the administration will work with Congress on the agreement, and that the envisaged deal would not determine future force levels or involve setting up permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

At a news briefing Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the administration does not contemplate a full-scale defense treaty with Iraq, and that there is no intention to force the hand of the next administration, Republican or Democratic. "Nothing that we are intending to negotiate would limit the ability of the current, or future, President, to make decisions on things like troop levels, on the kinds of operations that will be performed, or on what sorts of activities the U.S. military will engage in," he said.

The New York Times reported Friday that in negotiations with Iraq, the Bush administration will seek broad authority to conduct Iraq combat operations, and guarantees that the more than 150-thousand civilian contractors working for the United States will have protections from Iraqi law.

Such a provision would be controversial in light of violent incidents involving U.S. contractors, notably the episode last September in which guards from the firm Blackwater USA, protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy, are alleged to have killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

Several leading Democrats have expressed concern about a U.S.-Iraqi statement of principles from last November that included a U.S. pledge to support the defense of Iraq's democratic system from both internal and external threats.

At a House hearing Wednesday,Democrat Bill Delahunt said the contemplated accord could drag the United States into an Iraqi civil conflict. "If I were consulted by the administration, I would say come soon and let us know what you're considering, what do these principles mean. Because if you read these principles on the face, they are most expansive. One could interpret that internal and external attacks, in a most expansive manner, could forever involve us in the quagmire of Iraq," he said.

Spokesman Casey told reporters here that clarifying the ground rules under which U.S. troops will operate in Iraq after the end of the year is a bipartisan interest, and that drawing the United States into a NATO-style mutual defense treaty with Iraq is, in his words, simply not the intention here.