London, Apr.8 : A confidential draft agreement covering the future of US forces in Iraq shows that a provision is being made for an open-ended military presence in the country.
According to The Guardian newspaper, the draft strategic framework agreement between the US and Iraqi governments, dated March 7 and marked "secret" and "sensitive", is intended to replace the existing UN mandate and authorises the US to "conduct military operations in Iraq and to detain individuals when necessary for imperative reasons of security" without a time limit.
The authorisation is described as "temporary" and the agreement says the US "does not desire permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq".
But the absence of a time limit or restrictions on the US and other coalition forces - including the British - in the country means it is likely to be strongly opposed in Iraq and the US.
Iraqi critics point out that the agreement contains no limits on numbers of US forces, the weapons they are able to deploy, their legal status or powers over Iraqi citizens, going far beyond long-term US security agreements with other countries. The agreement is intended to govern the status of the US military and other members of the multinational force.
Following recent clashes between Iraqi troops and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in Basra, anti-occupation Sadrists and Sunni parties are expected to mount strong opposition in parliament to the agreement, which the US wants to see finalised by the end of July.
The UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
The proposed agreement is also likely to prove controversial in Washington, where it has been criticised by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has accused the Bush Administration of seeking to tie the hands of the next president by committing to Iraq's protection by US forces.
Administration officials have conceded that if the agreement were to include security guarantees to Iraq, it would have to go before Congress.
General David Petraeus, US commander in Iraq, is to face questioning from all three presidential candidates on Capitol Hill today when he reports to the Senate on his surge strategy, which increased US forces in Iraq by about 30,000 last year.
Both Clinton and Democratic rival Barack Obama are committed to beginning troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain has pledged to maintain troop levels until the country is secure.