WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States has no interest in setting up permanent bases in Iraq, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday, playing down concerns raised by negotiations on the future US military presence in Iraq.
Democratic critics have expressed fears that a planned "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) with Iraq will tie the hands of future US presidents by committing the United States to a long-term military presence.
But Gates said, "I think it is pretty clear that such an agreement would not talk about force levels. It would not involve -- we have no interest in permanent bases," he told reporters.
"I think the way to think about the framework agreement is an approach to normalizing the relationship between the United States and Iraq," he added.
Some Democrats, including Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have demanded that any agreement be sent to the US Congress for approval.
Gates insisted discussions on the SOFA have barely begun and it is not yet clear what form it will take.
"I do know that there's a strong commitment inside the administration to consult very closely with the Congress on this," Gates said.
"But, you know, without any idea of what the form of an agreement is going to be right now, I think it's premature to talk about congressional agreement or executive agreement. I think we just don't know," he said.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey earlier said negotiations on a status of forces agreement with Iraq aimed to keep security options open beyond 2008 when the UN mandate for US forces ends.
For example, he added, it would give US forces the option of continuing to hunt members of Al-Qaeda and train Iraqi troops.
Such an agreement "is very much the model that we use for regular bilateral relations between the United States and most other countries in the world," Casey said.
When asked if the agreement would include any reference to permanent bases, he replied: "We're not seeking permanent bases in Iraq. That's been a clear matter of policy for some time. No, the agreement is not a basing agreement."
Asked how Washington would respond if Baghdad asked for bases, he replied a distinction had to be made between the legal foundation on which US troops operate over a given term and tactical decisions on how to proceed.
"Those are the decisions that are made by US commanders on the ground, working with their Iraqi counterparts, and ultimately blessed by policy makers," he said.
"There is no anticipation that this is somehow going to forever lock in stone a particular level of troops or a particular set of activities or goals. Again, it's a legal framework," he said.
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