The Bush administration yesterday advanced a new argument for why it does not require congressional approval to strike a long-term security agreement with Iraq, stating that Congress had already endorsed such an initiative through its 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein.
The 2002 measure, along with the congressional resolution passed one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks authorizing military action "to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States," permits indefinite combat operations in Iraq, according to a statement by the State Department's Bureau of Legislative Affairs.
The statement came in response to lawmakers' demands that the administration submit to Congress for approval any agreement with Iraq. U.S. officials are traveling to Baghdad this week with drafts of two documents -- a status-of-forces agreement and a separate "strategic framework" -- that they expect to sign with the Iraqi government by the end of July. It is to go into effect when the current U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), whose questions at a House hearing Tuesday elicited the administration statement, described it as an "open-ended, never-ending authority for the administration to be at war in Iraq forever with no limitations." The conditions of 2002 no longer exist, he said.
"I don't think anybody argues today that Saddam Hussein is a threat," he said. "Is it the government of Iraq that's a threat?"
The proposed agreement has become a contentious issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic candidates and their allies on Capitol Hill have charged that the administration is trying to lock in a U.S. military presence in Iraq before the next president takes office.
According to yesterday's statement, the administration's interpretation of the 2002 resolution is that "Congress expressly authorized the use of force to 'defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.' "
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In a letter to Ackerman, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey T. Bergner said that authority exists with or without a U.N. mandate. In addition to the resolutions, he wrote, "Congress has repeatedly provided funding for the Iraq war." Democrats have failed in several attempts to curtail funding for the Iraq war.
The Iraqi government said late last year that it will not agree to renewal of the U.N. mandate for foreign troops there beyond 2008, and the administration announced that it was opening negotiations with Baghdad on a new bilateral agreement to replace it. A declaration of principles signed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush in December said the agreement would include "security assurances and commitments" to Iraq to deter foreign aggression.
Democrats, and some Republicans, maintained that any such agreement -- particularly if it includes a defense commitment -- would require Senate ratification. The administration has claimed executive authority, but has pledged that the agreement will contain no troop commitments and no promise to defend Iraq, and will not constrain the next president.
But Democratic lawmakers have demanded details of the proposed agreements and also assurances that Congress will have veto power. The administration declined until Tuesday to provide a senior official to discuss the drafting of the agreements or negotiations with Iraq.
During a tense joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs oversight and Middle East subcommittees, David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's chief Iraq adviser, did not answer to lawmakers' satisfaction questions about Congress's role in the agreements. Ackerman gave him 24 hours to respond.
Bergner's letter, said Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), "creates the basis for a constitutional confrontation."
© 2008 The Washington Post