Perino said Bush and Talabani discussed the sluggish move towards legislation to share oil revenues among Iraq's sectarian groups; to hold local elections, and to rehabilitate former members of the executed Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

 

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"Iraq is still under foreign occupation and Iraqis continue to die in great numbers"

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They did not talk about Kurdish fighters using Iraq as a base to conduct raids into Turkey or about US legislation calling for greater autonomy for Iraq's regional governments – the so-called soft partition.

 

The White House made no mention of reports that Talabani would press Bush for the release of an Iranian official who was arrested by US forces while visiting Iraqi Kurdistan last month.

 

At a separate Washington media briefing on Tuesday, the new US military deputy commander in Iraq attempted to paint an optimistic picture of security conditions as a result of the eight month old US security "surge" operation.

 

'Signs of normalcy'

 

Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno said: "Attacks have decreased and signs of normalcy across Iraq are starting to appear. We've witnessed dramatic improvements in security of the people of Iraq."

 

But when pressed, he admitted despite a drop, each month hundreds of Iraqi civilians are still being killed.

 

"There are way too many civilian casualties still in Iraq. And it's sad," he said.

 

The Talabani photo opportunity and the Odierno press briefing are attempts by the Bush administration to convince US legislators who hold the purse strings for the war, that Iraqi leaders are making political progress as a result of improved security.

 

But critics are sceptical.

 

David Mack, a former US ambassador now vice-president of the Middle East Institute, said: "The Bush administration is trying to get across the notion that there is real progress being made."

 

However, "the reality is the gap remains very, very wide and in many respects has been getting even wider".