U.S. lawmakers have again pressed Bush administration officials for details of negotiations that will lay the groundwork for future U.S. commitments to Iraq. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where the fifth in a series of hearings was held on implications of a declaration of principles signed last year by the United States and Iraq, and upcoming formal negotiations on two accords.
President Bush and administration officials have repeatedly made clear that they envision a long-term commitment to and relationship with Iraq. However, the administration has declined to provide members of Congress with specific texts of what is being negotiated.
Lawmakers worry that in negotiating a strategic framework accord and a separate Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the administration wants to set the legal groundwork for a long-term commitment in which U.S. soldiers would be required to fight to defend Iraq from internal or external threats.
Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, who chairs the House Middle East subcommittee, believes the administration is downplaying the scope of what is involved and is trying to avert a battle with Congress.
"Describing the proposed agreement as merely routine is, I believe, disingenuous at best," he said. "There is nothing routine about it, or the situation in Iraq, and trying to dampen concerns in Congress by suggesting that the declaration doesn't mean everything that it says suggests that the administration either doesn't understand English or has deliberately mis-led the Iraqis. Neither interpretation is flattering."
The administration's position was re-emphasized by Ambassador David Satterfield, senior advisor on Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Saying it is clear U.S. forces will need to operate effectively in Iraq beyond the end of 2008, he calls it imperative that a final accord provides, in his words, all the legal authorities and protections necessary for continued operations after a U.N. mandate expires later this year.
"The framework and the status of forces agreement will not tie the hands of the next president or indeed this president. They will ensure that every policy option remains on the table," said Satterfield. "The size of the U.S. presence in Iraq, the missions to be performed by such forces if forces are present, are decisions for the president and for the next president to make."
Neither agreement, Satterfield underscored, will contain a binding commitment to defend Iraq or any other security commitments that would require the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, nor authorize the establishment of permanent U.S. bases.
Democratic lawmakers are not persuaded. Democrat William Delahunt says based on what is known so far, Congress clearly needs to exercise its constitutional responsibility.
"Such an accord necessarily implicates the authority to fight, and as others have said, the decision to use force overseas except for limited defensive purposes requires a collective judgment of the political branches of the government," he said.
Republican Dana Rohrabacher, generally a supporter of the president's Iraq policies, faults the administration for not being more cooperative, saying the president owes Americans a transparent process.
"George Bush was elected president. He was not elected king," he said. "There is too much a stake in this game for one-upsmanship or turf battles dealing with congress and the executive branch."
During a particularly contentious exchange Ambassador Satterfield resisted attempts by Congressman Ackerman to have him state what the U.S. would do in the event Iraq were attacked, and detail administration discussions about constitutional responsibilities to consult with Congress.
SATTERFIELD: The president's responsibility is to assess the circumstances on the ground in Iraq and determine on the basis of that assessment.
ACKERMAN: Does he share that responsibility with anybody?
SATTERFIELD: He shares that responsibility with his commanders on the ground and with their chain of command.
ACKERMAN: And not with the American people and their representativies?
SATTERFIELD: Certainly Mr. Chairman, the president ultimately answers to the American people and the U.S. Congress.
ACKERMAN: I would suggest [that] 'ultimately' is coming very close [soon]."
In refusing to comment on what he called hypotheticals, including what would happen if Iraq were attacked, Satterfield pledged to provide detailed answers to Ackerman's constitutional questions within 24 hours.
In separate testimony, Yale Law School professor Oona Hathaway asserted that based on the details known so far of the status of forces agreement, Congress must be involved in the process.
"The kind of status of forces agreement that is proposed by the administration based on the remarks here today far exceeds the typical status of forces agreement," said Hathaway.
Foreign affairs and defense expert Lawrence Korb says that if Iraqis expect the U.S. to protect them against future threats, as he asserts is clear, then Americans through their representatives, should have a voice in any agreement that is negotiated:
"If in fact that is what they want, the American people and you their representatives should have a say in exactly what they [the Bush administration and Iraqi government] do," he said.
Ambassador Satterfield told lawmakers that U.S. and Iraqi teams are preparing for negotiations and clarifying positions on key issues, adding that the lead negotiator, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, would be testifying to Congress in coming months.
The U.S. and Iraqi sides, he adds, will begin with framework statements to ensure that all involved are working on what he describes as a similar fact-based assessment of the situation before substantive issues are discussed.