Iraqi President Jalal Talabani spoke ebulliently on Monday and cast a positive spin on the daunting task of nation-building. Talabani, in an interview with Washington Post reporters and columnists, said that despite bombings and armed conflict, the Jordanian insurgent leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, has failed in his attempt to spark a wider conflict in Iraq.

"Zarqawi tried but failed to advocate civil war by mainly attacking Shiites to drive them to rebel," Talabani said. He credited the U.S. military presence for "preventing civil war and neighbors from interfering openly against one another."

Talabani said that U.S. military forces serve as a buffer between Iraqi militias and insurgents opposed to the U.S. occupation and the interim Iraqi government. "Iraqi militias want to fight the terrorists but the Americans are stopping them," Talabani said. "Everyone goes to the American ambassador and U.S. forces to complain, as much as they come to me," he said.

He acknowledged that both the Iraq government and the Bush administration eventually seek to reduce the U.S. military presence. "We are supporting this, provided it is according to a plan and provided it does not look like the Americans are defeated or escaping as they did in Somalia and elsewhere," Talabani said.

He said insurgent fighters were demoralized in the aftermath of a U.S.-Iraqi operation in the last week in the northern city of Tall Afar. "The morale of the terrorists is not very high, according to the commanders," he said.

Talabani was conciliatory about relations with Syria and Iran. During the government of Syrian President Hafez Assad, he said, Syria supported opponents of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "We had a very good relationship with Syria," said Talabani, who opposed the Hussein government and founded a Kurdish militia. Talabani said he expected to visit Syria soon.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari met recently in Tehran with Iranian officials, who indicated willingness to provide $1 billion to help rebuild Iraq. "We are all friends of Iran," Talabani said with a broad smile, referring to former Iraqi dissidents now in power.

Talabani denied allegations by one of his ministers about reports that an Iraqi Hezbollah group with links to Lebanon's Hezbollah organization, as well as to Iran, was setting up training camps in Iraq. "We have a small group; they are friendly to Lebanon's Hezbollah. There are no training camps," Talabani insisted. When interrupted by an aide, Talabani broke into a spirited conversation in Kurdish. No translation was provided.

Tense Words With India

A sharp exchange of statements erupted last week between a U.S. congressman and Indian government officials. Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, complained at a committee hearing about remarks reported in Iran by India's external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh.

Lantos, speaking about a U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement, criticized Singh's position that complaints about Iran's nuclear development programs should be handled by the International Atomic Energy Agency rather than the U.N. Security Council.

"This is sickening, literally sickening," Lantos said. "This is Stalinist rhetoric, which we don't accept from the Indian foreign minister," he said.

Criticizing Singh and the Indian position, Lantos said, "They are simply dense because they are incapable of comprehending that other countries have very important concerns." Lantos's spokeswoman, Lynne Weil, said Tuesday that several committee members agreed with Lantos's position.

On Saturday, a spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry, Navtej Sarna, said the language used by Lantos was, "to say the least, unparliamentary. It is discourteous and crude and reflects negatively on the congressman himself."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asked about Lantos's remarks while en route to New York from New Delhi, said his government "could not be bothered by criticism" from an individual legislator, according to Indian officials.

France, Germany to the Rescue

A group of 18 French firefighters has been working in Louisiana on rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Nathalie Loiseau, spokeswoman for the French Embassy, said the firefighters conducted door-to-door rescue and recovery missions in St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans. In one house, they encountered a young man sprawled on the floor who had survived by eating peanut butter. But they also encountered people who had perished in the hurricane and its aftermath, she said.

German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger flew to New Orleans on Monday to observe German aid operations. The German government sent 89 specialists from the Federal Agency for Technical Relief, which activated 15 high-capacity water pumps, part of efforts to accelerate draining the flooded areas of the city.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani