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When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Congress yesterday, her job was to sell the president's budget, but she found herself facing questions about another issue. Rice tried to reassure members of Congress that the Bush administration is not going to tie the hands of future U.S. presidents in Iraq. Members of Congress, though, remain skeptical, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: In both a Senate and a House hearing, Rice was asked to go on record to explain just what sort of commitments the Bush administration is planning to make to Iraq. Administration officials are set to negotiate an agreement with Iraq to give legal cover to U.S. troops based there and to guide the relationship.
Rice spent a lot of time on the Hill yesterday explaining what this agreement won't do.
Ms. CONDOLEEZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): This is not about permanent basis, this is not about undertaking security assurances to the defense of Iraq. But it is about a long-term relationship with Iraq that would help Iraq to be a stable and good neighbor in the region.
KELEMEN: Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is still skeptical because while Rice was fairly definitive, President Bush signed a declaration of principles with Iraq's prime minister last year offering security assurances. And, Casey points out, Mr. Bush also issued what's called a signing statement about the Defense Authorization Act, in which he made clear he plans to ignore parts of the law that would prohibit him from using federal funds to establish permanent bases in Iraq.
Senator BOB CASEY (Democrat, Pennsylvania): You're dealing with an administration which I think has not been clear on these issues, has misled the American people time and again on this and a lot of other issues, and has issued signing statements which contradict laws passed by the Congress.
So there are several reasons to be troubled by this and several reasons to demand answers.
KELEMEN: Currently, U.S. troops operate in Iraq under a U.N. Security Council resolution that has to be approved each year. Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaida'ie, says Iraq wants to avoid that annual process and negotiate a bilateral agreement with the U.S. that will not only regulate U.S. troops, but also American contractors.
Mr. SAMIR SUMAIDA'IE (Iraq Ambassador to the U.S.): We have seen private security companies ride roughshod over Iraqi citizens and take the lives of many in circumstances that are not acceptable. We will make sure that they are accountable.
KELEMEN: Just how is a matter for negotiators to decide, he says. In a meeting with reporters this week, Ambassador Sumaida'ie also insisted that whatever agreement emerges won't tie the hands of the next U.S. president, though he thinks none of the leading candidates would make any abrupt moves out of Iraq anyway.
Mr. SUMAIDA'IE: We believe that the United States is morally bound to protect Iraq until it's able to defend itself. A lot of people in the United States share this belief. Now, whether this should be enshrined in this particular agreement is a different question.
KELEMEN: A question he didn't answer. And as the debate over America's future presence in Iraq heats up, so too has the debate over the run-up to the war. Florida Congressman Robert Wexler used yesterday's hearing to bring up a report by the Center for Public Integrity that said Rice made 56 false statements to, in Wexler's words, pump up the case for war. Rice was put on the defensive.
Ms. RICE: Congressman, I take my integrity very seriously. And I did not at any time make a statement that I knew to be false or that I thought to be false in order to pump up anything.
KELEMEN: On the Senate side, California Democrat Barbara Boxer also pressed Rice hard, asking her just how much more the war in Iraq will cost. Rice said it's a question no one can answer.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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