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U.S. to press Iraq for wide rights in future role

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire in 11 months, the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials.

This emerging U.S. 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 that the White House seeks would bind the next president by locking in Bush's policies and a long-term military presence.

The U.S. negotiating position for a formal military-to-military relationship, one that would replace the current U.N. 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 U.S. troops be immune from Iraqi prosecution and that they maintain the power to detain Iraqi prisoners.

But the U.S. quest for protections for civilian contractors is expected to be particularly vexing, because in no other country are contractors working with the U.S. military granted protection from local laws. Some U.S. officials want contractors to have full immunity from Iraqi law, while others envision less sweeping protections.

These officials said the negotiations with the Iraqis, expected to begin in February, would also determine whether the U.S. 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.

Congressional Democrats have accused the White House of sponsoring negotiations that will set into law a long-term security relationship with Iraq.

But administration officials said the U.S. proposal specifically did not set future troop levels in Iraq or ask for permanent U.S. bases there. Nor, they said, did it offer a 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 yesterday. "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 has military agreements with more than 80 countries around the world, including Japan, Germany, South Korea and a number of Iraq's neighbors, none of those countries is at war. And none has a population outraged over civilian deaths at the hands of armed U.S. security contractors who are not answerable to Iraqi law.

In seeking immunity for contractors, the administration is requesting protections for the 154,000 civilian contractors working for the Defense Department in Iraq. The administration says it depends heavily on those contractors, including about 13,000 private security contractors working for the Pentagon.

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