Iraq's president says Iraq will need a small number of U.S. troops stationed in the country for the long term to deter any effort by Iraq's neighbors to interfere in its internal affairs. President Jalal Talabani met Friday at the Pentagon with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
President Talabani says he thinks Iraqi security forces will be ready to take full responsibility for the country within two years, and all U.S. troops could leave the country at that time. But he wants some U.S. forces to stay on anyway. "No need for a huge number of American forces, but I said we need some. There will be a need for two, three small bases for frightening others not to interfere in our internal affairs," he said.
President Talabani made the statement at a news conference with Secretary Rumsfeld, who was reluctant to endorse the concept of a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq. "We wouldn't want to discuss anything that might be discussable until after there's a new constitution and a new government in place. And that type of thing would be discussed, as the President [Talabani] indicates, in an orderly way thereafter," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld said the United States will maintain its military presence in Iraq as long as necessary to see the country through the start of what he called a democratic and successful future.
At the news conference, President Talabani also said he has begun a dialogue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to get more Syrian help in stopping the flow of foreign insurgents into Iraq. President Talabani said he is not satisfied with the Syrian government's actions so far, but he sees some signs of hope of more cooperation in the future. He declined to provide details, saying that because of Syria's help to the Iraqi opposition during the Saddam Hussein era, he wants to settle any differences with President Assad in private discussions. The Iraqi president said he has been invited to Damascus for talks with his Syrian counterpart.
Meanwhile, some U.S. soldiers who have been serving in Iraq flew home on Friday, a few weeks earlier than planned. They are members of a National Guard unit from the state of Louisiana, part of which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina last week. The soldiers arrived at an airport not far from the flooded city of New Orleans to emotional reunions with family members.
Many of their homes were destroyed by the storm, a fact that their commanding officer, Brigadier General John Basilica, who is still in Iraq, said is particularly tragic. "It's just a terrible thing that they're going to come back from 18 months of sacrifice, where they have risked their lives, and have a disaster of this nature, and don't have a home to come back to," he said.
Some of the Louisiana National Guard soldiers coming home from Iraq have volunteered to go directly into the disaster relief effort. But most of the 2,500 soldiers told General Basilica they need to resume their civilian lives and be with their families as originally planned, after a year-and-a-half of active duty, including 12 months in Iraq, and especially now after the trauma their families have suffered from the storm.