Bush Applauds Iraq Officials on Benchmark Progress

President Bush congratulated key Iraqi government officials Monday on reaching an agreement this weekend on political issues seen as crucial to sectarian reconciliation there.

The agreement — which now must pass the Iraqi parliament to become law — would settle differences over critical benchmarks laid out by the U.S. Congress and used to debate the success of the U.S. effort in Iraq. The issues that would be settled include power-sharing, bottom-up security and political initiatives and several other legislative benchmarks, Bush said.

"Success in Iraq will be a major blow to the extremists and radicals who would like to attack America again. And that's why the United States will continue to support Iraq's leaders and all the Iraqi people in their efforts to overcome the forces of terror that seek to overthrow a nascent democracy," Bush said after arriving in New Mexico for a private fundraising event.

The breakthrough comes in the final days before a highly anticipated report from U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Iraq — a report that is being looked at as a referendum on how well Bush's plan for boosting troop levels is working to give Iraqis room to achieve peace.

Bush specifically praised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani , Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani.

"These leaders represent all the Iraqi communities. Yesterday's agreement reflects their commitment to work together for the benefit of all Iraqis to further process," Bush said.

Bush added that the agreement alone is not enough.

"While yesterday's agreement's an important step, I reminded them and they understand much more needs to be done," Bush said, repeating the U.S. commitment to continue support for the Iraqi government.

"I welcome and accept the expressed desire of the Iraqi leadership to develop a long-term relationship with the United States based on common interests," Bush said.

The administration could itself benefit from greater political achievements by Iraqi officials in the coming days. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are preparing to give a report to Congress in the coming days on military and political progress in Iraq. The report is due by Sept. 15.

Last week, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., called for a withdrawal of 5,000 U.S. troops from Iraq to push the Iraqi government to move more quickly on reconciliation. He also cited the pending agreement as a reason he would not yet call for al-Maliki to step down. That followed a demand for a no-confidence vote on al-Maliki by Sen. Carl Levin , D-Mich., who traveled with Warner to Iraq the week prior.

Given the progress made on the agreement, "there's a flicker of hope (that) some of the important issues, which reflect reconciliation between Sunni and Shia and Kurd, could be achieved by the 15th," Warner said. Separately, al-Maliki lashed out at Levin and Sen. Hillary Clinton for interfering and being ignorant about the amount of work is involved in a national reconciliation.

While the Bush administration has been positioning itself to maintain Iraq current troop levels — approximately 162,000 — Democrats have been pushing the drawdown to begin sooner, with all combat troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2008. Warner proposed bringing about 5,000 troops home as a symbolic gesture that the United States will not remain in Iraq forever.

Duke University political science professor David Rohde said Monday that he believes there is not currently enough support in Congress to pass a quick plan for withdrawal from Iraq, but it will be difficult to convince lawmakers that political progress is being achieved in Iraq.

"I think it's a high hurdle because I think the judgment is very widespread — and it's not just confined to Democrats — that Maliki can't create a successful government, a stable government," Rohde said. "It would have to make more than just a statement. It would have to yield tangible results."