By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008
The Iraqi government may request an extension of the United Nations security mandate authorizing a U.S. military presence, due to expire in December, amid growing domestic criticism of new bilateral arrangements now being negotiated with the Bush administration, according to senior Iraqi officials.
Iraqis across the political spectrum have objected to Bush administration proposals for unilateral authority over U.S. military operations in Iraq and the detention of Iraqi citizens, immunity for civilian security contractors, and continuing control over Iraqi borders and airspace.
Failure to reach an agreement on the arrangements, which must be approved by the Iraqi parliament, would leave the negotiations over a future U.S.-Iraqi relationship and the role of U.S. forces in the country to the next American president.
Differences over Iraq policy are among the sharpest distinctions between the two U.S. presidential contenders. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) advocates continuing the current strategy, with no timetable for the withdrawal of what are likely to be about 133,000 troops remaining in Iraq by the November election. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has said he would begin an immediate withdrawal of combat troops, to be completed within 16 months.
The Bush administration has said the accords -- a status of forces agreement on the rights and responsibilities of U.S. troops in Iraq, and a vaguely defined "strategic framework" on the broader U.S.-Iraqi security and political relationship -- are "non-binding." But U.S. lawmakers have questioned whether they commit the United States to a long-term security role in Iraq and challenged the White House contention that that they do not require congressional approval. Both Republicans and Democrats have accused President Bush of trying to tie the hands of his successor.
In a letter Wednesday to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the four senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee emphasized that Congress is in charge of funding any administration commitment, "regardless of election outcomes in November."
The letter, signed by Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and ranking minority member Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), along with John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), cited "the Constitutional and legal implications of these potentially sweeping arrangements," and said the need for legislative approval "remains an open issue."
Status of forces agreements, which the United States has with more than 80 countries around the world, are not considered treaties and are traditionally signed under executive authority -- though the agreement the Bush administration seeks in Iraq ranges far beyond any other such accord. A statement signed by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last fall said the "strategic framework" would include a U.S. commitment to defend Iraq. But the White House has said that such a commitment is not binding and that Bush can sign it as an "executive agreement" without congressional ratification.
The senators also charged that the administration had not kept its promise to "closely consult" with Congress during the negotiations and noted that it had yet to respond to written questions the committee posed nearly two months ago.
A written response sent to Capitol Hill yesterday avoided the most contentious questions, repeating previous public administration statements and stressing that the agreements would include no specific U.S. force levels or provisions for "permanent" military bases.
In Iraq, objections to the agreements have provided long-battling political blocs something to agree on. In a letter this week to Congress, representatives of virtually all of Iraq's major political and sectarian groups said they "strongly reject" any agreement without "clear mechanisms [and] an agreed timetable" for U.S. withdrawals.
The Iraqi government, still struggling toward political reconciliation, can ill-afford to sign an agreement that leading political actors have branded a violation of sovereignty. After a meeting Wednesday of the Council of Ministers -- made up of Maliki, the Iraqi president and the two vice presidents -- government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat that "the Iraqi government's vision differs from that of the Americans, who think . . . [the agreements] will give them almost totally a free hand in Iraq and that, as a military force, they must have absolute powers."
As a result, a senior Iraqi official said, "all options are open, including extension of the [U.N.] mandate," an option Maliki previously had rejected. "Our immediate worry is how to get anything we agree on past our parliament," the official said.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, who heads the "strategic framework" talks, said his focus was "more on getting it done right than getting it done quick." But "we've set the end of July as a notional date" for signing the accords, he said, "and we're certainly going to try to meet that."
Crocker charged Iran with stirring up Iraqi opposition to the accords, seeking to "make the negotiation difficult." Last month, newspapers seen as speaking for Iran's clerical establishment called the accords "capitulation" to Washington.
But a spokesman for Iraqi Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said in May that he opposed the agreement, and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has said any accords should be subject to a referendum in Iraq. Sunni and Kurdish leaders also signed the letter to Congress.
The Iraqi official, who said he could speak candidly only with anonymity, said there was virtually no chance that the July deadline, set by Bush and Maliki last fall, would be met. He said an Iraqi request to extend the U.N. mandate might come as early as next week, when Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is to brief the U.N. Security Council.
For U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, a senior U.S. official said, "they either have to have U.N. authority or bilateral authority. You've got to have one or the other to have a basis for [a military] presence."