WASHINGTON — The United States, determined to prevent a resurgence of terror networks in Iraq, wants to preserve the right to hunt down top foreign fighters, as it negotiates a long-term security agreement with the Iraqis, according to a working draft described to The Associated Press.
While the agreement will not tie the U.S. to specific troop levels, officials do not rule out including some broad goals for the U.S. military presence there, reflecting the gradual transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.
The closely held draft document foresees a flexible agreement that would allow the U.S. and Iraqi governments to adapt and shift responsibilities as conditions change. That goal is seen as critical to calming resistance from Iraqis who want their country free of U.S. control and to giving commanders the room to respond to changing violence levels.
In particular, it could adjust as attacks increase, decrease or shift to other areas, and as the provincial and national Iraqi governments progress and take on more security responsibilities.
Several officials with knowledge of the approximately 15-page document spoke on condition of anonymity because they were private discussions.
As U.S. military and diplomatic leaders begin shaping their positions for the talks, it is also becoming clear that they will need to provide greater controls over U.S. contractors in Iraq and that a blanket immunity from prosecution is not likely.
U.S. officials consider this one of the more sensitive issues and are expected to resist Iraqi pressure to make contractors subject to local laws. But, under the cloud of a shooting incident last year involving Blackwater Worldwide that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, the U.S. may need to provide better assurances that security contractors will be held accountable for their actions.
Any U.S.-Iraq agreement will face criticism from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers say they will insist Congress review or approve it. Administration officials, who have just begun to brief lawmakers, say the agreement will not rise to the level of a treaty, which must be approved by Congress.
Called a Status of Forces Agreement, the document would lay out the legal parameters under which U.S. forces would operate. It will carve out the military, political and economic relationship the U.S. will have with the fledgling government of a country it invaded in 2003 and has occupied for nearly five years.
Meetings with the Iraqis have not yet begun, but the negotiations will coincide with what will be an increasingly spirited debate _ in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns across the country _ over how many and how long U.S. troops should stay in Iraq.
That debate may peak in early April when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, returns to Washington to give President Bush a progress report on the Iraq war and his assessment of what forces he will need.
There are now 157,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, but that number is expected to come down over the next several months as four more combat brigades leave the country and are not replaced. By July there would be roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops in Iraq, and the administration has been sending signals that the reductions could slow or stop for a while at that time.
The long-term agreement would replace the U.N. Security Council resolution that now governs the U.S. and coalition presence in Iraq. That resolution will expire at the end of 2008, and officials have set an ambitious goal of completing the new agreement by July 31.
According to several administration officials, parts of the agreement would resemble those the U.S. has with countries such as Japan and South Korea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the agreement will not propose permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.
A key negotiating issue, said officials, will be the need for the U.S. to maintain military authority to gather intelligence and conduct counterterrorism activities, as well as ongoing combat missions. The negotiations would likely set out when and if the military could operate unilaterally and when it would need to coordinate with, or possibly seek approval from, the Iraqis.
"The United States will want the maximum flexibility possible to have access to locations within Iraq without it being seen as an incursion on their sovereignty," said Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Hicks said she believes the Iraqis will also want the U.S. to continue with border security, since Baghdad officials have estimated it will be 2018 before they can take over that job.
Also, as long as the Iraqis lack both the facilities and the capacity to deal with the thousands of detainees being held in Iraq, U.S. officials said they would likely seek authority to continue those tasks.
Other portions of the agreement would provide standard legal protections for U.S. troops, who are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and thus would not be subject to Iraqi law.
Officials stressed that they don't yet know what the Iraqis' opening positions will be or whether some issues could be detailed in a formal legal document while others may be more loosely mapped out.
Members of Congress raised alarms last month when the Bush administration released an outline of the issues and goals that would be addressed in the agreement. Some officials, including Democrats running for president, have argued that the document could tie the hands of the next administration.
Administration officials, however, say that the agreement would merely keep open the option of a continued U.S. presence in Iraq that a new administration could accept, reject or modify.
Several Democratic senators, including Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Carl Levin of Michigan, sent a letter to Bush in December saying it would be unacceptable for the administration to fashion such an agreement with Iraq without congressional participation.
"The American people should be fully informed as to what we're getting ourselves into with any bilateral agreement with Iraq," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who held a hearing on the issue last week. Administration officials declined to participate.
Any document that commits U.S. troops to providing security for Iraq must get congressional review, Delahunt said. He added that he would prefer the U.N. resolution to be extended for several months so that the next administration and the new Congress could address the issue.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.
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