WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is refusing to make public the security pact it has signed with Iraq, even though it has already been published in full in an Iraqi newspaper, a congressional hearing was told on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were holding a closed briefing for U.S. House of Representatives members on the pact signed on Monday that sets a 2011 deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.
Rep. Bill Delahunt, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations and Human Rights, before the closed briefing called it “insulting and an after-thought,” after the Bush administration earlier rebuffed calls for Congress to be consulted during year-long negotiations on the agreement.
The administration has said it will not seek congressional approval for the deal. It has been in a hurry to finalize the pact, which Iraqi lawmakers still must approve, before the U.N. mandate under which U.S. troops operate expires on December 31.
Delahunt, who has urged President George W. Bush to renew the U.N. mandate rather than sign a bilateral agreement with Iraq, held the eighth in a series of hearings on the Status of Forces Agreement.
He said the Bush administration had turned down an invitation to attend the open hearing, saying it was a “sensitive time.” Experts testifying before his subcommittee were forced to rely on an unofficial English translation of the security deal.
“Even now the National Security Council has requested that we do not show this document to our witnesses or release it to the public. Now that’s incredible — meantime the Iraqi government has posted this document on its media website,” Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, said.
He was referring to the Iraqi government-funded al-Sabah newspaper, whose Arabic version of the deal is also the source of the only known unofficial English translation, by the anti-war American Friends Service Committee.
“There is something bizarre about the text being disseminated to the Iraqi people and we are being told we cannot distribute the English-language version of the agreement,” said Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
According to the unofficial version, the United States and Iraq are to set up a joint committee to oversee and coordinate all offensive U.S. military operations.
“All such military operations that are carried out pursuant to this agreement shall be conducted with the agreement of the government of Iraq. Such operations shall be fully coordinated with Iraqi authorities,” the translated document says.
Oona Hathaway, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said it appeared the agreement would give the joint committee operational control over U.S. military operations. If so, that would be “unprecedented and extremely unusual,” she said.
“The president can enter into agreements on his own but this agreement goes far beyond the president’s independent constitutional powers,” Hathaway said.
She said challenging the legality of the agreement was compounded by the vagueness of much of its wording. She said standard SOFAs are several hundred pages, but the Iraqi one was a little over 20 pages.
On the controversial issue of Iraqi criminal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers, the unofficial English version says Iraq will have that right “when such crimes are committed outside agreed facilities and outside duty status.” It does not define “duty status.”
But any U.S. service members arrested or detained by Iraqi forces will be kept in U.S. custody pending trial, it says.
In the future, U.S. forces will not be able to arrest Iraqis without Iraqi approval, and those detained must be handed over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours, requirements that could potentially complicate military operations, Michael Matheson, a former State Department legal adviser told the hearing.
Editing by Vicki Allen