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A top lawmaker voiced fears Tuesday that US President George Bush's administration was negotiating deals with Iraq that would amount to an open-ended commitment to stage US combat missions there.

Administration officials say formal US-Iraqi negotiations will begin later this month on a legal framework aimed at keeping security policy options open for both countries beyond 2008, when the UN mandate for US forces ends.

David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, told a joint meeting of two congressional subcommittees Tuesday that "the agreements will not tie the hands of the next president or indeed this president.

"They will ensure that every policy option remains on the table," Satterfield told the lawmaking panels. "The size of the US presence in Iraq, the missions to be performed by such forces if forces are present, are decisions for the president and the next president to make," he added.

The so-called Strategic Framework and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), he insisted, "will not include a binding commitment to defend Iraq or any other security commitments that would warrant Senate advice and consent.



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