WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials sought Thursday to defuse criticism over a proposed agreement with the Iraqi government, saying the U.S. would seek neither permanent bases in Iraq nor a commitment to a set number of American troops.
In the agreement, being negotiated this year, the U.S. is seeking to maintain its current level of authority to conduct combat operations in Iraq, administration officials said.
The United Nations mandate that governs U.S. operations in Iraq expires at the end of this year and administration officials hope to replace it with an agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the new "framework agreement" would help normalize the relationship.
"I think it's pretty clear that such an agreement would not talk about force levels," Gates said. "We have no interest in permanent bases."
Although the accord requires the Iraqi parliament's approval, the Bush administration has said it does not need to be approved by Congress, a position that has angered Democrats and made the talks with Baghdad highly controversial.
In a Jan. 15 Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said President Bush was trying to use the agreement to lock the United States into a long-term military presence in Iraq.
"I think we have to do everything we can to prevent President Bush from binding the hands of the next president," Clinton said. She has sponsored a Senate bill that would force the Bush administration to submit the agreement to Congress for approval.
Bush recently said the accord would be similar to those with Kuwait and other nations.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey disputed Democratic contentions that the accord would obligate future presidents. He said it was not binding and was unlike treaties, which require ratification by the Senate.
Gates said the Bush administration would work with Congress on the agreement, but there was no decision on precisely what kind of deal would be made with Iraq.
Casey said that because U.S. officials would not seek permanent bases or set troop levels, any agreement would not "limit options of policymakers, now or in the future."
"It will always be the decision of the commander in chief and U.S. military leaders over what level of forces to have and what military operations will be," he said.
A possible point of contention for Iraq is the legal status of U.S. troops and contractors in the country, which analysts said is likely to be included in the agreement. Proposed Iraqi legislation would end legal immunity for contractors.
Casey said it was important to have clear legal protections for U.S. troops.
"Certainly we want to make sure that any place in the world that U.S. troops are deployed, that there is an clear legal mandate and understanding of the environment they operate in," he said.