The Bush administration says it aims to hand over a more stable and secure Iraq to the next U.S. president, but does not seek to "bind" the incoming administration to a set course in the country. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where a senior administration official spoke at length on U.S. efforts in Iraq Thursday.

Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have offered radically different plans for what they would do in Iraq once in office. Yet the extent to which a new president will have a free hand to chart a course for U.S. engagement in Iraq, or be tied to commitments made by the Bush administration, is not clear.

David Satterfield, the State Department's Coordinator for Iraq and a senior advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, addressed the topic in remarks at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"We hope, by the end of this administration, to be able to leave to the next president an Iraq which is more stable, more secure, than it has been - a U.S. relationship with Iraq that is stable over the long term. We cannot bind a new U.S. administration, that is not our intent," he said. "It is to allow that new administration options and time to reflect upon our interests in Iraq."

The frontrunner among Republican presidential contenders, Arizona Senator John McCain, has stated his determination to maintain U.S. troops in Iraq for years, or perhaps decades. By contrast, both Democratic candidates have pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq roughly one year after taking office, arguing that an open-ended U.S. commitment in Iraq will leave little incentive for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own nation.

But if Ambassador Satterfield maintains the incoming president's hands should not be tied when it comes to Iraq, he left little doubt as to what he hopes the next U.S. president will do, pointing to recent comments by Middle Eastern leaders to President Bush.

"When the president visited the Gulf, he heard that an arrangement, the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States, was an extremely positive and welcome development," added Satterfield. "And that, by contrast, a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces, a precipitous ending of the U.S. presence in Iraq, would be viewed by those states as disastrous."

Satterfield repeated the Bush administration's contention that last year's troop surge in Iraq is working better than anyone had hoped in quelling violence and promoting stability in Iraq.

But he added that security is only half of the equation to guarantee the long term survival of democracy in the country.

"Security progress, dramatic as it is, cannot, by itself, produce true security, lasting stability in Iraq," he said.

Satterfield said political reconciliation is key to a better future. He noted some progress on that front, including enactment of a de-Baathification law. But he said much more needs to be done, including finalizing a national hydrocarbons law governing Iraq's vast oil wealth. He said failure to enact an oil law is an impediment to investments that would boost Iraqi oil production and generate additional revenue for the country.