Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says a future Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated with the Iraqi government will not include a formal arrangement requiring the United States to defend Iraq. VOA's Dan Robinson reports on testimony by Gates to Senate and House committees on Capitol Hill.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to conclude a bilateral agreement on military, political and economic cooperation, including the role of U.S. forces, within the next six months.
However, the issue is controversial, with congressional Democrats and other critics accusing the Bush administration of negotiating the accord, and a declaration of principles signed late last year, without seeking approval or guidance from Congress.
The matter was among the first mentioned by Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman Carl Levin.
LEVIN: Is it the intention as far as you know, to submit any agreement which is negotiated with the government of Iraq to the Senate for its advice and consent, if there is any commitment in such an agreement to defend Iraq beyond the term of this administration?
GATES: I am certainly no lawyer but I would say that any elements in the agreement, in any agreement that is put together that involves the treaty ratification authority of the Senate would require that it be submitted.
Later, it was Senator Edward Kennedy's turn. Noting the U.N. Security Council vote in December temporarily extending the mandate under which U.S-led forces have been in Iraq, he pressed Gates again on the point:
KENNEDY: Wouldn't it make more sense to seek a short-term extension to enable the next [U.S.] administration to decide what form our commitment should take, if any?
GATES: Well, sir, Senator Kennedy, the Status of Forces Agreement that is being discussed will not contain a commitment to defend Iraq and neither will a strategic framework agreement.
That was a confirmation of recent statements by Bush administration officials that a firm security guarantee will not be part of the accord, but would have to be covered by a separate agreement in the form of a treaty.
On the question of consultation, Gates said there should be what he called "a great deal of openness and transparency" with Congress as the agreement is negotiated.
Iraq's ambassador to the United States told reporters this week that a future bilateral accord would not authorize permanent U.S. military bases.
However, the declaration of principles signed last November by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contains language referring to security assurances and commitments, and "defending [Iraq's] democratic system against internal and external threats."
To the White House position that the agreement would not require input from Congress, critics say the language raises the likelihood of a long-term U.S. troop presence even after President Bush leaves office in 2009.
Senator Kennedy pointed to what he calls shifting positions by the administration, and singled out a declaration, known as a signing statement, by President Bush in which he said he would not be bound by language in defense legislation prohibiting use of funds to set up permanent bases.
Lawmakers note that the administration has not pledged to submit the final text of the bilateral agreement for approval by Congress.
While making saying the administration would submit any elements of a bilateral accord requiring a stamp of approval by the Senate, Gates reiterated the administration's general explanation that the U.S.-Iraq accord be similar to similar agreements with other governments.
On the question of war costs, Secretary Gates told lawmakers in both the Senate and House armed services committees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $170 billion into the 2009 fiscal year, a figure that includes $70 billion proposed this week by the Pentagon.
However, he cautioned that this will depend on decisions made later this year on troop levels in Iraq, and whether Congress approves about $100 billion President Bush asked for the current 2008 fiscal year.