Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates denied Wednesday that the Bush administration was seeking a treaty with Iraq that would require long-term security commitments forcing future U.S. presidents to continue sending troops.
Instead, Gates told lawmakers, a new agreement with Baghdad would give the U.S. military continuing legal authority to operate in Iraq, much like current United Nations resolutions, which expire at the end of the year.
Gates' statements, made at two congressional hearings, were the most definitive from the administration on an issue that has become a point of partisan rancor over Iraq. Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has made the proposed agreement an issue in her presidential campaign, accusing the administration of seeking to tie the hands of the next president by committing to Iraq's protection with U.S. forces.
Gates said the agreement would be similar to dozens of "status of forces" pacts the U.S. has with other allies and said the administration would not seek any permanent bases in Iraq. The administration, he added, hopes to complete talks by July.
"The status-of-forces agreement that is being discussed will not contain a commitment to defend Iraq, and neither will any strategic framework agreement," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democratic objections have mounted since President Bush announced in November that he had signed a "declaration of principles" with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki outlining the topics that would be included in a bilateral agreement.
Among the principles was "providing security assurances and commitments" to Iraq. Administration officials have said they will not submit the agreement for congressional approval, arguing that it did not rise to the level of a formal treaty.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, has countered that the Iraqi foreign minister has termed the agreement a treaty and that, under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is required to ratify any treaty that provides such security guarantees.
"Our troops are involved, our national security is involved, and Congress should have the opportunity to approve or disapprove such an agreement," Kennedy told Gates. "Congress even approves the security agreement with the Marshall Islands [and] Micronesia. There's no convincing reason to bypass Congress."
Gates told the Senate panel, and the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing later in the day, that he would push to ensure that U.S. negotiation positions are shared with Congress.
Gates drew criticism in both hearings for failing to estimate the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2009 Pentagon budget, unveiled this week. The Pentagon is required to do so by law.
The Defense secretary estimated at the hearings that war costs next year would be about $170 billion, but said such a guess could be wildly off the mark.
He said his department could not more accurately estimate its funding needs until Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, issued recommendations on troop levels in a report expected next month.