- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

President Bush yesterday pressed the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, to help Iraq’s government meet benchmarks that could calm sectarian strife and set the stage for U.S. troops to leave the region.

“The president fully understands the need for the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks, and he is dedicated to achieving those benchmarks,” Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office, after meeting privately with Mr. Talabani.

“It is important that you succeed,” Mr. Bush told the Iraqi president, who does not preside over the legislative branch but is an influential political figure in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday said that the United States is looking to a long-term military presence in Iraq.

Mr. Gates, en route to a conference in Singapore, told reporters in Hawaii that plans still call for an assessment of the U.S. “surge” strategy in September but said he was looking beyond that to the type of military presence the United States will have in Iraq over the long term.

“What I’m thinking in terms of is a mutual agreement where some force of Americans — mutually agreed with mutually agreed missions — is present for a protracted period of time,” he said, comparing the scenario to the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Mr. Talabani, who underwent a series of medical tests last week at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, called Mr. Bush “the hero of liberating Iraq” and agreed that Iraq’s fledgling, often divided government must show progress.

“I am committed as the president of Iraq to benchmarks,” said Mr. Talabani, a former Kurdish guerrilla.

Much of the debate over an emergency war funding bill last month centered on whether to include specific benchmarks that, if not met, would have triggered a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Mr. Bush has opposed that approach, preferring to leave benchmarks out of binding legislation while agreeing that the Iraqi government needs to pass certain measures soon.

The Iraqi government, however, is divided among Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish factions, and has not enacted an oil-revenue-sharing law or a law allowing former Ba’ath Party members to return to work, and has not made progress on establishing provincial elections.

“I don’t say that everything is OK. … No, we have problems,” Mr. Talabani said. “We have serious problems with terrorism.”

Mr. Bush said he was sending a top administration official, who had said she would be leaving the White House soon, back to Iraq.

Meghan O’Sullivan, deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, will work with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Iraq, Mr. Bush said, “to help the embassy help the Iraqis meet the benchmarks that the Congress and the president expect to get passed.”

Miss O’Sullivan went to Iraq in 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s government. She served under L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and has worked at the State Department.

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