WASHINGTON - US forces will remain in Iraq beyond the end of 2008, but a continued US troop presence will not tie the hands of a future US president, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in a newspaper column Wednesday.
"It is clear ... that US forces will need to operate in Iraq beyond the end of this year for progress in stabilizing Iraq to continue," the top US diplomatic and military officials wrote in The Washington Post.
"The current UN authorization expires at the end of this year, and Iraq has indicated that it will not seek an extension. It would rather have an arrangement that is more in line with what typically governs the relationships between two sovereign nations," Gates and Rice added in their jointly written article ahead of hearings in the House and Senate at which each were to give testimony Wednesday. Gates however cancelled his planned appearance after falling and spraining a shoulder.
Still the two US officials argued that in Washington's view the current year is one of "critical transition" in Iraq.
"To continue the success we have seen in recent months, the Iraqi people and government will continue to need our help. Iraqis have requested a normalized relationship with us, and such a relationship will be part of a foundation ... upon which future US administrations can build," Gates and Rice wrote.
Their comments come ahead of talks bringing together diplomats, security experts and military officials.
"In these negotiations, we seek to set the basic parameters for the US presence in Iraq, including the appropriate authorities and jurisdiction necessary to operate effectively and to carry out essential missions," Rice and Gates wrote.
"In addition, we seek to establish a basic framework for a strong relationship with Iraq, reflecting our shared political, economic, cultural and security interests."
"Nothing to be negotiated will mandate that we continue combat missions. Nothing will set troop levels. Nothing will commit the United States to join Iraq in a war against another country or provide other such security commitments. And nothing will authorize permanent bases in Iraq (something neither we nor Iraqis want)," they added in newspaper article.
"In short, nothing to be negotiated in the coming months will tie the hands of the next commander in chief, whomever he or she may be.
They continued: "Quite the contrary, it will give the president the legal authority to protect our national interest -- and the latitude to chart the next administration's course."