Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were on Capitol Hill Wednesday briefing U.S. lawmakers on the security agreement now being considered by Iraq's parliament. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, members of Congress continue to debate the U.S.-Iraq accord, as experts testifying at a congressional hearing offered their own assessments.
Gates and Rice held their classified briefings for lawmakers behind closed doors, and neither official commented to reporters.
The product of months of negotiations, the U.S.-Iraq security accord establishes the basis for a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires on December 31 of this year.
It sets a June 30, 2009 deadline for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns, with a December 31, 2011 date for final withdrawal, provided Iraqi forces have assumed full security responsibilities.
However, many U.S. lawmakers have been angry with what they view as a secretive process in which the Bush administration undertook very little if any consultation with Congress.
These feelings were evident in a public hearing of a House foreign affairs subcommittee, where Democratic Representative William Delahunt voiced his frustration.
"There has been no meaningful consultation with Congress during the negotiation of this agreement and the American people for all intents and purposes have been completely left out."
Delahunt referred to a request from the National Security Council that the text of the agreement not be released publicly, and be withheld from witnesses at the hearing.
Oona Hathaway, Professor Law at the University of California at Berkeley calls the lack of consultation with Congress unprecedented, asserting that aspects of the accord exceed the independent constitutional powers of the president.
Among troublesome provisions she points to is one involving a joint U.S.-Iraqi coordinating committee that she suggests would require U.S. commanders to seek permission to engage in military activities other than self-defense.
"The provisions granting authority to U.S. troops to engage in military operations, the grant of power over our military operations to this joint committee, and the specification of timetables for withdrawal of military forces," Hathaway said. "These are unprecedented in a standard SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] have never been part of a standard SOFA, and extend in my view far beyond what the president can do without obtaining congressional approval."
In Baghdad Wednesday, the accord ran into difficulties, when its second reading in the Iraqi legislature was disrupted amid arguments between supporters and opponents.
Raed Jarrar, consultant in the Middle East Peace Building Program of the American Friends Service Committee, suggests opposition to the accord remains intense in Iraq.
"There are many people who think signing of the agreement now will be divisive in Iraq, it will split the Iraqi community and the parliament yet again. And so it will not be a reason for unification, it will be a reason for more violence and more fighting among Iraqis and maybe it will push the security situation [to] deteriorate even more," he said.
Jarrar says extending the United Nations mandate, in the absence of approval by Iraq's parliament, would give Iraqis time to adequately discuss the agreement.
"Maybe by the end of this week we will find that it is not going to be possible to conclude this agreement before the end of the mandate in which case we do have to go to the U.N. options," said Michael Matheson, a visiting Professor of Law at George Washington University.
Matheson says this course would allow more time for the U.S. Congress to work out details with a President Barack Obama next year.
Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, calls the U.S.-Iraq agreement important for Iraq and U.S. security interests in the region relating to Iran.
"Not only is this an important agreement for limiting Iran's ability to make mischief in Iraq, but it is an important step forward in Iraq's own self-image as a free and independent state, not too much under the influence of Tehran," he said.
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher expressed this view during Wednesday's hearing.
"It is not in our interest to stay in a country like Iraq unless those people want us there to help them defeat evil forces that threaten to overrun their own defenses," he said. "So, if they don't, it's time to go."
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Ike Skelton, said this week that while the U.S.-Iraq accord contains some positive aspects, he remained deeply troubled by vague language he fears could cause misunderstandings and conflict between the U.S. and Iraq.
Skelton referred to provisions he believes could result in U.S. troops facing prosecution in Iraqi courts.
U.S. officials say while the accord gives Iraq an element of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and private contractors who commit certain crimes while off-duty, service members would remain in U.S. custody.