By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiating long-term security agreements have reworded a proposed White House commitment to defend Iraq against foreign aggression in an effort to avoid submitting the deal for congressional approval, Iraq's foreign minister said yesterday.
The alternative under discussion will pledge U.S. forces to "help Iraqi security forces to defend themselves," rather than a U.S. promise to defend Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. Although "it's the other way around," he said, "the meaning is the same, almost."
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed agreement, called the change "a distinction without a difference." Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the accord will constitute a defense treaty requiring congressional ratification and have accused the Bush administration of withholding information on the talks.
Zebari, who spoke yesterday with Washington Post reporters and editors, also said he was "reassured" by his telephone conversation Monday with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Obama has said he would begin an immediate withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
Zebari said Obama told him that the Iraqi government and people could be sure that, "if there would be a Democratic administration, it will not take any irresponsible, reckless, sudden decisions or action" that would endanger security gains.
"Whatever decision he will reach will be made through close consultation with the Iraqi government and U.S. military commanders in the field," Zebari said Obama told him. Obama "wants redeployment, he wants a timetable" for withdrawal, Zebari added. But "he is not interested to pull all the troops out. He wants a residual force" to continue fighting terrorists in Iraq, protect U.S. diplomatic facilities and possibly continue training Iraqi security forces.
Obama has spoken of such a "residual" force, without specifying where it would be based or how many troops it would include. Denis McDonough, who advises Obama on foreign policy, yesterday confirmed much of Zebari's account of their conversation, saying that the two "discussed" where residual U.S. troops would be based and that "at least some of that force will have to be in Iraq."
McDonough disagreed with Zebari's observation that there was "not too much difference" between Obama's position and that of the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), with whom Zebari met Sunday. While McCain favors continuing current administration policy, "Barack has made clear that he favors a timetable . . . and wants to use that timetable to press Iraq's political leaders to resolve their political differences," McDonough said.
Zebari said he was optimistic that the negotiations -- on a status-of-forces agreement, or SOFA, governing the rights and responsibilities of U.S. troops in Iraq, and on a "strategic framework" outlining long-term political, cultural and security ties -- could be concluded by the end of July. The agreements are to go into effect Jan. 1, when the U.N. mandate governing the U.S. military presence in Iraq expires.
The foreign minister said the United States had compromised on a range of contentious SOFA issues -- including backing down on full immunity for civilian U.S. security contractors in Iraq -- following complaints that those issues would violate Iraq's sovereignty. He indicated that rejected U.S. proposals for unilateral authority over all U.S. military operations and the ability to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens would be resolved by the formation of joint "commissions" that would supervise such actions.
While Iraqis across the political spectrum have criticized the terms of the status-of-forces agreement, Congress has focused on the broader "framework" pact. In a document he signed last fall with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Bush pledged "security assurances and commitments . . . to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace."
Under sharp questioning from U.S. lawmakers, the administration has insisted that the agreement will be "nonbinding" and can be legally signed by Bush without congressional approval. But Maliki said last week that the administration had "abandoned" its defense pledge during negotiations and that Iraq still wanted a vow that "it would be defended" from foreign attacks.
Zebari said "our lawyers and their lawyers" had determined they could avoid the ratification problem with a pledge to "help" Iraqis defend themselves.