Congress Weighs Troop Pact In Iraq

White House officials briefed congressional aides today on the draft agreement governing U.S. troops in Iraq that may set a 2011 deadline for their withdrawal.

After that briefing, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised the timetable for ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq, which the administration had opposed. But he and other members of Congress are watching the nuances of the pact that the United States and Iraq are negotiating.

The Pentagon uses status of forces agreements (SOFAs) to protect the legal rights of U.S. personnel deployed abroad.

In this case, members of Congress and a trade organization representing contractors in Iraq want to make sure the agreement does not leave members of the military and contractors open to prosecution by a fledgling legal system.

“It’s critical that our dedicated men and women in uniform serving in Iraq have full legal protections and are not subject to criminal prosecution in an Iraqi judicial system that does not meet due process standards,” Levin said, adding that he wants to further review of the agreement to see if it meets those standards.

The Professional Services Council, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of private security contractors, appealed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a recent letter.

“According to reports we have heard, the SOFA will not provide any basic protections for contractor or non-governmental organization employees,” the group said. “We believe this important issue must be addressed openly in order to avoid any unintended consequences that affect the U.S. mission and the nation of Iraq itself.”

The council’s executive vice president, Alan Chvotkin, suggested the current agreement reflects a backlash from an incident in which contractors from Blackwater Worldwide killed Iraqi civilians.
“I hope the September 2007 incident doesn’t create an environment where the federal government is essentially walking away from the contractors,” Chvotkin said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is consulting closely with members of Congress, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters, but historically such agreements have not required Senate ratification.