WASHINGTON—President Bush is losing his top day-to-day adviser on Iraq, the White House confirmed Monday.
Meghan L. O'Sullivan, who has played a key behind-the-scenes role in implementing Bush's controversial Iraq policies over the past four years, will leave later this spring.
Her departure, which follows that of her deputy, could leave the White House with a vacuum of long-term experience on Iraq policy, and it comes as Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress prepare for a showdown over withdrawing U.S. troops.
O'Sullivan, 37, known for her 100-hour work weeks and steady optimism over the eventual outcome in Iraq, said in an interview that with the completion of months-long reviews of policy in Iraq and Afghanistan—which she also oversees—she felt it was the right time for a change.
"There's never a good time to leave this kind of job. ... But (I decided) this would be as good a time as any," she said, adding that she was happy with the outcome of both reviews.
O'Sullivan, who says she's uncertain of her next job, helped craft the strategy that Bush announced in January, including an increase of 28,000 U.S. troops to help secure Baghdad.
She has spent nearly three years at the White House and before that was a top aide to L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq before the country regained its sovereignty.
O'Sullivan's boss, Steve Hadley, praised her in a statement. "She has served this president with real distinction during a critical time in Iraq," he said.
But four years after the U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq remains mired in a churning civil war, with suicide bombings an almost daily occurrence. More than 3,200 U.S. soldiers have died. Two million Iraqis have fled the country, and 1.9 million are internally displaced, according to U.N. figures.
Stanford University professor Larry Diamond, who worked in Baghdad with O'Sullivan during Bremer's tenure, called her an amazingly quick study of Iraqi politics.
She "came in with very little knowledge of Iraq when the war began," Diamond said, but by the time she left some Iraqis were calling her "the Gertrude Bell of the American mission"—a reference to the British civil administrator who helped create Iraq in the early 1920s.
Still, Diamond said, O'Sullivan's time at the White House has been "during a period where our policy has failed, and our situation in Iraq has, at best, stagnated and I think, by many objective assessments deteriorated disastrously. You can hardly call her tenure a success."
O'Sullivan isn't one of the neoconservatives who advocated the U.S. invasion. In fact, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld briefly removed her and others from an advance Pentagon team in March 2003. Yet O'Sullivan never wavered in public or private from optimism that the U.S. effort in Iraq would succeed.
"The situation is still a difficult one," she said Monday. "We're really at the very, very early stages of this new strategy."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.