By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 16, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is consulting with congressional leaders on the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement that will allow American troops to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31. The United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S. military presence in Iraq runs out on that date, and U.S. and Iraqi officials must reach an agreement for American troops to continue operations and continue to train the Iraqi security forces, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said during a news conference today.
U.S. State Department negotiators have been working with their Iraqi counterparts for months to hammer out an agreement. Morrell said the negotiations have yielded a draft that both sides can live with, but the agreement is subject to the normal political process in both nations. In Iraq, the draft already has been to the Executive Council and is moving through the Political Committee on National Security. The draft also must go to the Council of Ministers and then the Council of Representatives.
The legislation is like scores of other agreements the United States has with countries around the world and does not require Senate ratification to become effective, Morrell said. Such agreements provide the legal authority for Americans to continue to operate in a country and does not tie any future commander in chief's hands, he said.
Still "the secretary is in the process of consulting closely with members of Congress, those who have jurisdiction over this building," Morrell said. "And, in fact, he has begun making a number of phone calls today to committee leaders and is intent on fulfilling his pledge to them to consult with them on this document before it is finalized."
Morrell would not discuss specifics on the agreement, but he did say the Iraqis desire to assume greater responsibility for their national security.
"We are supportive of that," he said. "It is a tribute to the progress that's been made by our forces, since the surge, that conditions on the ground are such that it is stable enough, it is secure enough, that Iraqi forces have taken more of a lead in their operations."
The Iraqis are growing in strength, capabilities and confidence, Morrell said. They are at the point where they can see a time when fewer Americans will be needed to keep stability and security in Iraq.
The agreement, Morrell said, includes "aspirational timelines" for U.S. force reductions.
"We've talked about goals," Morrell said. "Any withdrawal dates that are in this – and there are dates in this document – are entirely conditions-based. These are not ad hoc, willy-nilly, arbitrary timelines. These are goals that ... we have agreed to that will only be followed if the conditions on the ground provide for it. But that is something the Iraqis strongly want. They are a sovereign nation, and we are fully supportive of those desires."
Morrell said the two sides are close to a final document, but he would not forecast a date.