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Rumsfeld: Iraq Benchmarks Reasonable, Timetable Proponents Should 'Back Off'

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is entirely reasonable for U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss setting benchmarks and target dates for achieving their goals during the coming year. He says some of that has been done, but he says he is not aware of any agreement by Iraqi officials to develop a comprehensive plan, or to make any such plan public. Secretary Rumsfeld spoke at the Pentagon on Thursday as controversy continues to swirl about recent statements by U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Secretary Rumsfeld says U.S. and Iraqi officials have been meeting for months to discuss the way forward. And he says it is reasonable for those discussions to include the issue of approximately when the various steps in the security, political and economic plans might be achieved, without necessarily setting firm dates.

"It is a sovereign country, working with the coalition, to see how we get from where we are through this year and through next year and accomplish the things that are in our mutual interest," he said. "That is what that is. It is a perfectly normal, rational thing."

The secretary described the process this way.

"The idea [is] of saying, 'We're here, we want to get there, here are some steps to get there, let's go ahead and tell the world these are the steps, we want to get there, we've kind of agreed on them. And then see if we can't do it," he added.

Pressed on whether Iraqi leaders have agreed to establishing such a series of steps and making the plan public, Secretary Rumsfeld said he believes some benchmarks have been set in meetings between U.S. and Iraqi officials, but he is not aware of any comprehensive plan.

"Are they meeting and having discussions on these things? Yes. Have they been meeting for some weeks and months? Yes. Does that imply a certain amount of understanding that that process might be useful? Yes. But can I say that they, that is to say the prime minister and his government, have come down and said, 'yes we'll do this, we won't do that, or yes we will do this and we won't do that, and we'll do it by this time.' No, one would have thought they might have announced that if they'd decided all of that," he said.

Secretary Rumsfeld also said Iraqi leaders have not agreed develop a comprehensive plan by the end of this year. And he said critics who are pressing for a specific timetable with consequences imposed on the Iraqi government for not meeting it should 'just back off.'

At a news conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said 'Iraqi leaders have agreed to a timeline' for making what he called 'the hard decisions needed to resolve' a long list of political issues. And he said some more specific plans should be ready by the end of the year.

On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected the idea of a timetable, but a transcript of his remarks indicates he was referring to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, not for solving the country's political and economic problems.

Later that same day, President Bush said U.S. patience is not unlimited and that he will push Prime Minister al-Maliki to achieve agreed objectives, but he said he will not push so hard that he makes it impossible to achieve those objectives.

At Thursday's news conference, Secretary Rumsfeld said he believes it is valuable to set goals and identify the steps that need to be taken to achieve those goals. But he says specifying the timing in Iraq's complex political environment is difficult.

"The reconciliation process is going to have three or four major milestones," he explained. "You can't know when you're going to find agreement with the Sunnis and the Kurds and the Shia on some of these complicated things. You can say, 'Well, we'd like to try to do it in the first quarter, or the second quarter.' And then you can, you know, work hard to try to achieve that. But you may or may not achieve that."

Secretary Rumsfeld says U.S. officials in Baghdad are in continuous discussions with Iraqi officials at all levels to try to work out a plan for the coming year, including at least some indication of when the various steps might be taken. But he said no one should expect firm dates and that the plan will not include any punishments for the Iraqi government if the targets are not met.