The commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq says U.S. officials are engaged in preliminary talks that could lead to negotiations with leaders of the country's insurgency.  But he said those talks do not involve the al-Qaida-led foreign fighters in Iraq who carry out many of the most deadly attacks.

General George Casey says reports of negotiations with insurgent leaders are exaggerated, but there are some preliminary talks going on that he hopes will lead to that.

"Characterizing these discussions as 'negotiations' is probably not right," he said.  "They're discussions, and they're discussions primarily aimed at bringing these Sunni leaders and the people they represent into the political process.  But to characterize them as negotiations with insurgents about stopping the insurgency, we're not quite there yet."

General Casey says there is some confidence building that must happen to convince him that these talks can really have an impact.

"We may start moving there, but the first thing we want to do is meet with Sunni leaders, and a lot of these folks claim they have leverage over the insurgents that we have yet to see realized, frankly," added General Casey.  "So, I think we'll ultimately get there, with the Iraqis, but we're not there yet."

General Casey says the talks involve Sunni factions that could join the political process in Iraq, and do not involve any of the foreign factions, such as the one led by the al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Musab Zarqawi.  The U.S. military says the foreign fighters are the smallest but most deadly of the insurgent groups in Iraq.

At the same news conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed the general's characterization of the talks.  He said the Iraqi government, working with American advisers, is reaching out to as many political factions as it can.

Donald Rumsfeld
"I've been impressed with how overblown these 'meetings' are, quote-unquote meetings," said Mr. Rumsfeld.  "There are meetings going on all the time between people in Iraq and other people in Iraq attempting to get them to be supportive of the government, which is obviously the logical thing one does in a political process, and certainly not with people like Zarqawi.  That's just someone's imagination running wild."

Secretary Rumsfeld said that ultimately the insurgency will be defeated by the Iraqi people, and that the U.S.-led coalition is working to provide the environment for that process to begin.

The Secretary also responded to questions about the continuing flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, many of them through Syria.  Asked whether the United States is prepared to increase pressure on Syria to close its border to such infiltrators, he said that is the responsibility of Iraq and other countries in the region.

"It seems to me it's up to Syria's neighbors, including Iraq, to interact with Syria in a way that helps them understand the damage they're doing to the region, from an economic standpoint, from a political standpoint and from a security standpoint," he added.  "And certainly the president, and our government, has been involved in that process with them."

Secretary Rumsfeld also said success in Iraq will not necessarily mean tranquility.  He said many countries live with low-level insurgencies, and that may be true in Iraq for some time to come.  On Sunday, he noted that some insurgencies go on for more than 10 years, even as the countries where they are happening prosper. 

General Casey said his latest semi-annual assessment concluded that the coalition effort in Iraq is "broadly on track" to accomplish the coalition's "strategic objectives."