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May 27, 2008

Iraq Deals Overshadowed by Rising Concerns

by Jim Lobe

Iraqi parliamentarians are increasingly concerned that they are being left out of talks between Iraqi and U.S. officials over a strategic deal to determine the future relationship between the two countries, at a time when the U.S. Congress failed to include a provision in a bill to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars last week to restrict President George W. Bush's authority to sign such deals.

"We have not been informed about the content of the talks in detail so far," Abdulkhaliq Zangana, from the Kurdistan Alliance bloc in Iraq's Council of Representatives, which holds 53 of 275 parliamentary seats, told IPS in a telephone interview from Baghdad. "There is absolutely no way that the Iraqi government can make any such agreements without the consent of Iraqi parliament."

He said, however, that there is a general consensus among Iraqi parliamentary blocs for such an agreement to regulate "the future relations between the two countries" but in a way that is "in the interests of both sides."

The Iraqi and U.S. governments have been negotiating for months the formulation of two agreements, as the UN mandate under which U.S. troops currently operate in Iraq will terminate in December.

One is known as a Status of Forces Agreement, which sets up the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. The other one is called a Strategic Framework Agreement, and would devise a blueprint for the wider bilateral relationship between the two countries in political, economic, and cultural areas.

As a first step, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed an agreement known as the Declaration of Principles last November. The agreement commits the United States to defend Iraq in the event of any "foreign aggression" and "external and internal threats."

"Of course, there are a lot of fears inside and outside parliament regarding the content of such agreements since they deal with strategic, critical, and long-term issues for Iraq," added Zangana, who demanded a vital role for the parliament in the negotiating process.

The concerns by Iraqi lawmakers come as their counterparts in Washington are pressing the administration hard not to sign any deals with the Iraqi government on defense and security matters without congressional approval.

Despite that, the U.S. Senate failed last Wednesday to include a provision in a bill to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that would constrain Bush's power to unilaterally sign any security agreements with Iraq.

The explicitly aggressive tone of the Bush-Maliki agreement on protecting Iraq against foreign intervention has set off alarms in Washington that the administration may seek to use it as a cover to attack Iran, which has been repeatedly accused by U.S. civilian and military officials of destabilizing Iraq.

In an unexpected move that could further increase tensions, the U.S. military has established a station near the Iranian border without the consent of Iraqi authorities, and which sparked Iranian protests, Iran's English-language Press TV reported in late April.

With a July deadline for the agreements approaching fast, Iraq's clerical class has become more vocal against the possible deals as well. Iraq's most powerful religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, joined other dissenting voices when he recently said he would not allow Iraq to sign such a deal with "the U.S. occupiers" as long as he was alive, Press TV reported last Saturday.

Another senior Iraqi cleric, Sayyed Kazem Haeri, had earlier ruled against the agreements and had said that those agreements would "legitimize" the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Samir al-Sumaidaie, complained, during a media roundtable at the Iraqi embassy last February, that the controversial agreements would turn Iraq "into a virtual colony of the United States," or present a "formula for stationing permanent American bases" in the war-torn nation.

While many lawmakers consider the deals to be treaties – which under the U.S. Constitution would require Senate approval – the administration rejects that argument and says they are executive agreements that lie within the president's powers.

The movement against the deals in Congress has been mainly led by Democrats who fear Bush's attempts to set the future Iraq policy framework would tie the hands of the next president – who Democrats strongly hope will come from their ranks.

Describing the move by Democrats as "a continuation of the power game struggle" between the Republican-held White House and Democratic-dominated Congress, Kate Gould from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, said, "Congress would definitely not approve an agreement with such a broad-scale military commitment from the U.S. as outlined in the Declaration of Principles."

"Bush is exceptionally determined to not consult with Congress in matters where their input has historically been sought," said Gould.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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