Bush administration seeks Iraq agreement…

Very interesting Jan. 24, 2008 article.  With all the fluff going on in the campaign, an issue of substance is emerging that few are noticing.  It’s got Hillary hot and bothered, though it seems that Barack has barely noticed it.  Bush, without tying his successor’s hands on troop levels, is trying to get an agreement with the Iraqi government on operating standards between the two militaries.  Read on…

WASHINGTON — With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire, the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors immunity from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials.

This American negotiating position faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq, with its fragmented parliament, weak central government and deep sensitivities about being seen as a dependent state, according to these officials.

At the same time, the administration faces opposition from Democrats at home, who warn that the agreements the White House seeks would bind the next president by locking in Mr. Bush’s policies and a long-term military presence.

The American negotiating position for a formal military-to-military relationship, one that would replace the current United Nations mandate, is laid out in a draft proposal that was described by a range of White House, Pentagon, State Department and military officials on ground rules of anonymity. It also includes less-controversial demands that American troops be immune from Iraqi prosecution, and that they maintain the power to detain Iraqi prisoners.

The American quest for immunity for civilian contractors is expected to be particularly vexing, because in no other country are contractors working with the American military granted protection from local laws.

These officials said the negotiations with the Iraqis, expected to begin next month, also would determine whether the American authority to conduct combat operations in the future would be unilateral, as it is now, or whether it would require consultation with the Iraqis or even Iraqi approval.

“These are going to be tough negotiations,” said one senior Bush administration official preparing for negotiations with the Iraqis. “They’re not supplicants.”

Democrats in Congress, as well as the party’s two leading presidential contenders, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, have accused the White House of sponsoring negotiations that will set into law a long-term security relationship with Iraq.

But administration officials said that the American proposal specifically does not set future troop levels in Iraq or ask for permanent American bases there. Nor, they said, does it offer a mutual security guarantee defining Washington’s specific responsibilities should Iraq come under attack.

Including such long-term commitments in the agreement would turn the accord into a bilateral treaty, one that would require Senate approval. The Bush administration faces the political reality that it cannot count on the two-thirds vote that would be required to approve a treaty with Iraq setting out such a military commitment.

Administration officials are describing their draft proposal in terms of a traditional status-of-forces agreement, an accord that has historically been negotiated by the executive branch and signed by the executive branch without a Senate vote.

“I think it’s pretty clear that such an agreement would not talk about force levels,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday. “We have no interest in permanent bases. I think the way to think about the framework agreement is an approach to normalizing the relationship between the United States and Iraq.”

While the United States currently has status-of-forces agreements with 80 countries around the world, including Japan, Germany, South Korea and a number of Iraq’s neighbors, none of those countries are at war. And none has a population outraged over civilian deaths at the hands of armed American security contractors who are not answerable to Iraqi law.

Democratic critics have complained that an initial announcement about the administration’s intention to negotiate an agreement, which the White House announced on Nov. 26, did include an American pledge to support Iraq “in defending its democratic system against internal and external threats.”

Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat of Massachusetts, said that what the administration was negotiating amounted to a treaty and should be subjected to Congressional oversight and ultimately ratification.

“Where have we ever had an agreement to defend a foreign country from external attack and internal attack that was not a treaty?” he said Wednesday at a hearing of a foreign affairs subcommittee held to review the matter. “This could very well implicate our military forces in a full-blown civil war in Iraq. If a commitment of this magnitude does not rise to the level of a treaty, then it is difficult to imagine what could.”

Over recent days, administration officials acknowledged that the language of the Nov. 26 announcement might have pointed toward a mutual security treaty, and that a decision had been made to limit the scope of the pending negotiations to issues that could be resolved this year, before the Security Council resolution expires.

To that end, administration officials said that the draft text was narrowly written to codify what the administration regards as four essential requirements for the American armed forces to continue the mission in Iraq.

In seeking immunity for contractors, the administration is requesting protections for the 154,000 civilian contractors working for the Defense Department in Iraq; most carry out such duties as driving trucks, preparing meals and the like. The administration says it depends heavily on those contractors, including about 13,000 private security contractors working for the Pentagon.

Under an earlier agreement between the United States and Iraq, those contractors have been exempt from Iraqi law. Justice Department officials have said it is not clear whether any crimes committed by contractors in Iraq, including the role played by Blackwater employees in a September shooting in Baghdad, would be subject to American law, but the administration has taken steps intended to close any loopholes.

In seeking authority to conduct combat operations, the Bush administration is seeking something similar to the current United Nations Security Council resolution, which allows the United States and other coalition forces to operate in Iraq “in support of mutual goals,” one Bush administration official said.

The official said that the agreement sought by the United States could allow Iraq to “rescind that authority at a later date as the security environment improves and they take over the mission.”

In contrast to the contractors, the immunity being sought for American military personnel is a standard part of most recent agreements for basing American forces on foreign soil, which grant exclusive jurisdiction over American forces to American law, specifically the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In terms of prisoners, the administration and military would like the Iraqis eventually to take control of all battlefield detainees. But they say that the United States still needs the authority to hold those prisoners, because Baghdad does not yet have the capacity — in personnel, facilities or legal structures — to manage the current detainee population of about 26,000.

Senior administration officials say concerns that the agreement would limit the decisions of the next president are not justified.

“More than 90 percent of this will be a pretty standard status-of-forces agreement,” said one senior official involved in drafting the American proposal. “It is not something that will tie the hands of the next president. It does not commit to specific numbers of a long-term troop presence in Iraq, and it does not call for enduring bases.”

One official involved in preparing the talks acknowledged that the Bush administration was cognizant of the Democrats’ concerns, and was “going to great lengths not to make this a treaty. We simply are trying to institutionalize our military-to-military relationship as we would with any other country.”

Yet, beyond the talks on a new military-to-military relationship with Iraq, parallel negotiations will seek to lay the foundation for a broad strategic partnership with Iraq even as it remains an active combat zone.

The talks were set in motion last November, when President Bush and his Iraqi counterpart, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, agreed to negotiate a new strategic relationship between the two nations, which also will include political and economic components.

The military-to-military aspect of the relationship is to be negotiated by July 31, the two presidents said, well ahead of the Dec. 31 expiration date for the United Nations Security Council Resolution that has been the core legal authority for the American-led military mission in Iraq.

The draft American text on military-to-military relations, now under discussion at the White House, Pentagon and State Department, is short, running less than 15 pages.

“It’s not ‘War and Peace,’ and it doesn’t have a lot of hard-to-read legal jargon,” said one military officer who participated in drafting the text.

American officials are keenly aware that any agreement must be approved by Iraq’s fractured Council of Representatives, where Sunni and Shiite factions feud and even Shiite blocs loyal to competing leaders cannot agree.

A senior Iraqi defense ministry official said his government had been studying every American status-of-forces agreement to understand what is the norm, and what is not.

“We know the Iraqis will compare it to others in the region and throughout world,” a military officer involved in the discussions said. “We do not want them to believe they are held to different SOFA standards.”

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