Gates: US won't promise to defend Iraq in accord
(Adds comment on bases third paragraph, edits)
By Kristin Roberts
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - The United States will not promise to defend Iraq nor seek permanent bases there under a planned agreement on future relations between the two states, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
"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 a U.S. Senate panel.
"We do not want, nor will we seek, permanent bases in Iraq," he later told a U.S. House of Representatives committee.
The United States and Iraq have agreed to start formal negotiations about their future relationship with the goal of finishing an accord by the end of July.
The agreement will set the rules and legal protections under which U.S. forces operate in Iraq. The size of the long-term U.S. presence in Iraq also will be part of the negotiations, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House deputy national security adviser, has said.
But Democrats in Congress worry the Bush administration could use the agreement to lock in a long-term U.S. military presence before the next president is elected on Nov. 4. They say the administration could use it to bind future presidents to Bush's current Iraq policy.
On Wednesday, some Democrats argued any agreement that includes a promise to defend Iraq would require Senate approval.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Gates Congress should have opportunity to approve the agreement because U.S. troops and U.S. security are involved.
"Obviously, the stakes are extremely high," he said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
"Congress, I believe, must have the opportunity to approve or disapprove any security commitment, agreement or assurance, pledge or guarantee, regardless of what it is called, that affects our troops and our national security."
Gates told the Senate panel the Bush administration would share information with lawmakers as the agreement with Iraq is negotiated. But he stopped short of agreeing to submit the pact to the Senate for approval.
"My view is that there ought to be a great deal of openness and transparency to the Congress as we negotiate this status-of-forces agreement so that you can satisfy yourselves that those kinds of commitments are not being made and that there are no surprises in this," he said.
The United States has 158,000 troops in Iraq to maintain security nearly five years after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
By about mid-July, the U.S. troop level is expected to stand about 130,000. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)