WASHINGTON - The US administration can keep troops in Iraq into next year even after expiration of the UN mandate that governs operations there and without Congress' permission, says a senior State Department official in a letter to a Democratic lawmaker.
In the letter to Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman, David Satterfield said military operations can continue "beyond the end of this year under the laws passed by Congress and the president's authority as commander in chief."
Satterfield's statement reaffirms the administration's position that it does not need international or congressional approval to conduct military operations anywhere in the world, particularly when going after terrorists. Democrats counter that the president's assertion is in violation of the US Constitution and damages the US image abroad.
"It's ludicrous to think that we have entry into any country because there's an individual there that we don't like," Ackerman said in an interview Wednesday.
Particularly if the UN mandate expires, "I think the world would see our place in Iraq as totally illegitimate at that point," he said.
Satterfield, the State Department's top adviser on Iraq, sent the letter in response to a pointed exchange with Ackerman a day earlier during a hearing before Ackerman's committee in the US House of Representatives.
With the UN mandate set to expire at the end of the year, and neither Iraq nor the United States wanting it extended, the two countries are negotiating a long-term security plan that would take its place. The closely held draft document foresees a flexible agreement that would allow the two governments to adapt and shift responsibilities as conditions change.
While officials say it would not tie the United States to specific troop levels or establish permanent bases in Iraq, the plan is expected to preserve a US right to hunt down top foreign fighters inside Iraq's borders.
Administration officials have said they probably will not seek Senate approval of the plan because the agreement will not be a treaty that provides Iraq with specific security guarantees. This position has prompted a backlash in Congress, where Democrats have proposed legislation that would render the agreement void without Senate approval.
In his statement, Satterfield cites two legislative measures that he says give the administration cover to remain in Iraq: the 2001 and 2002 resolutions authorizing force in Iraq and against nations harboring al-Qaida terrorists.
Democrats and some Republicans have questioned whether the 2002 authorization of force in Iraq still applies legally because it referred to the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein and eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Since the 2003 invasion, Hussein has been captured and executed, and weapons of mass destruction were not found.