A top lawmaker voiced fears Tuesday that US President George Bush’s administration was negotiating deals with Iraq that would amount to an open-ended commitment to stage US combat missions there.

Administration officials say formal US-Iraqi negotiations will begin later this month on a legal framework aimed at keeping security policy options open for both countries beyond 2008, when the UN mandate for US forces ends.

David Satterfield, the State Department’s coordinator for Iraq, told a joint meeting of two congressional subcommittees Tuesday that “the agreements will not tie the hands of the next president or indeed this president.

“They will ensure that every policy option remains on the table,” Satterfield told the lawmaking panels.

“The size of the US presence in Iraq, the missions to be performed by such forces if forces are present, are decisions for the president and the next president to make,” he added.

The so-called Strategic Framework and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), he insisted, “will not include a binding commitment to defend Iraq or any other security commitments that would warrant Senate advice and consent.

“I wish to be clear: They will not establish permanent bases in Iraq nor will they specify in any fashion the number of American forces to be stationed there,” Satterfield said.

But Gary Ackerman, the Democratic chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, complained Satterfield was “vague” when he repeatedly asked him if Congress would be consulted over a possible military scenario.

“If Iraq is attacked, are you stating categorically that the administration will take no action until an appropriate course of action is decided in consultation with the Congress?” Ackerman asked.

Satterfield replied: “The administration will act as any administration would act in defense of US interests.”

Ackerman fired back: “That wasn’t my question.”

Satterfield said: “I cannot and will not speculate on hypotheticals.”

The exchange eventually boiled down to whether the administration had the constitutional duty to consult with Congress on such scenarios and Satterfield agreed to come back with a considered response in 24 hours.

During later questioning, Satterfield also said the administration got its authority to negotiate the deals from the 2002 Congressional authorization that led to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The administration has “authorization to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” Satterfield insisted.

Ackerman replied: “So what you have described is a never-ending process in which our troops can be required to remain there in Iraq, in combat, for as long as they want.”

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