A battle is shaping up in Congress over the Bush administration’s move to entrench long-term U.S. military occupation in Iraq.

Bush has ratcheted up pressure on Iraq’s government to accept a so-called status-of-forces agreement that would legitimize an ongoing U.S. occupation with continued U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Seeking to side-step Congress in forging the deal, the White House claims the plan is not a treaty, and therefore does not require Senate approval.

Democrats in Congress and the Democratic presidential candidates charge the Bush move is intended to stymie any efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq, and to tie the next president’s hands.

In his State of the Union speech Jan. 28, Bush, as expected, declared the U.S. troop surge a victory despite continued violence in Iraq. But he refused to elaborate or even describe the details of the status-of-forces-agreement. GOP presidential front-runner John McCain has been a key supporter of Bush’s Iraq policies.

Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who joined their Senate colleagues to hear the president’s final State of the Union address, assailed the proposed agreement and said there would be strong resistance to it in the Senate.

Obama declared, “Tonight we heard President Bush say that the surge in Iraq is working, when we know that’s just not true.” He continued, “The only way we’re finally going to pressure the Iraqis to reconcile and take responsibility for their future is to immediately begin the responsible withdrawal of our combat brigades so that we can bring all of our combat troops home.”

Clinton said Bush “wants to bind the next president to his failed strategy by unilaterally negotiating with the Iraqi government about the future of the U.S.-Iraq security relationship, including the possibility of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.”

Peace advocates note that the agreement pressed by Bush runs counter to majority public opinion which favors getting out of Iraq. Moira Mack of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq said in a statement, “Keeping our troops pinned down in Iraq for years to come is not acceptable to the American public. A long-term agreement sends the wrong message to Iraqi leaders that the U.S. will continue the open-ended commitment of troops — something the American people adamantly oppose.”

The Council for a Livable World has launched a petition drive urging Congress to stop Bush from signing the agreement.

“Five years into this disastrous war, both Bush and Iraqi officials are talking about occupying Iraq for another decade — or even longer,” the petition reads.

“Withdrawing our military from Iraq, while helping rebuild Iraq and assisting refugees, is the just and honorable solution to an unjust war,” it continues. “We reject the idea of committing the United States to a long-term occupation in Iraq, and ask our elected officials to quickly and safely bring our American troops home.”

Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) warned a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing last week that the arrangement being pushed by Bush “could very well implicate our military forces in a full-blown civil war in Iraq.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has introduced the Iraq Strategic Agreement Review Act of 2008. It would require the Bush administration to consult with Congress before moving forward with any agreement on long-term security arrangements and other major economic and political commitments regarding Iraq.

“This administration has made it very clear that when it comes to U.S. policy in Iraq, unless Congress is very specific, it will ignore the will of the American people and attempt to circumvent the will of Congress,” DeLauro told the press.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) told The New York Times, “There’s no exit strategy, because the administration doesn’t have one. By entering this agreement, they avoid a debate and they validate their unspoken strategy.”

The agreement being pushed by the White House would also exempt from Iraqi laws the approximately 154,000 private contractors and mercenaries working for the Pentagon in Iraq, according to a New York Times report. Such a measure is unlikely to win much support in Iraq, where anger is widespread over the role of private military contractors like Blackwater USA in the killing of many Iraqi civilians. In the U.S. the measure is likely to draw criticism as well. Many note that Blackwater USA is a major Republican Party donor.

The administration’s effort to lock Iraq and the U.S. into a long-term U.S. occupation comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. troop surge. As the People’s Weekly World previously reported, improvements in security reported in some parts of Iraq happened primarily not because of the surge, but through private deals between the U.S. military and former insurgent Sunni groups that included cash payments and arms.

Both U.S. military analysts and Iraqis opposed to the enduring occupation see these tactics as intensifying hostility between Shia and Sunni groups, blocking the political reconciliation the Bush administration claims to want and producing new problems that could be used to justify a longer deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq and the region.