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Top U.S. commander expresses fresh hopes for Iraq withdrawal as Rice, Rumsfeld visit
The Associated Press (apwire)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-04-27 09:43 (KST)   
ROBERT BURNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq

Success in forming a new Iraqi government may let some U.S. troops leave the war zone within months, says the top American military commander in Iraq. Paying a surprise visit, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld embraced the country's fledgling leaders as independent and focused on the future.

''I came away most encouraged,'' Rumsfeld said Wednesday after he and Rice spent a day meeting with Iraqi politicians and U.S.
military and diplomatic advisers in the capital city.

Rice called the priorities and commitment of Iraq's newly selected prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, ''refreshing and really heartening.'' The double-barreled show of support for Iraq's first permanent democratic government was meant to resonate in Iraq and among Americans, whose frustration with the war effort has helped drive President George W. Bush's poll numbers to new lows.

A four-month political stalemate, coupled with insurgent activity seemingly aimed at exacerbating the situation, had sapped support among Americans for U.S. involvement in Iraq. The administration remains under election-year pressure from the public and many in Congress to draw down its forces.

''There is no question but that as the new government is formed and the ministers are in place, that it's appropriate for us to begin discussions with the new government about the conditions on the ground and the pace at which we'll be able to turn over responsibility in the provinces,'' Rumsfeld said.

Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander, saidselection of government leaders marked a major step toward creating conditions that could allow a partial withdrawal.

''I'm still on my general timeline'' for a possible withdrawal, he told reporters after meeting with Rumsfeld.

Casey used no figures. There are about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and military officials have spoken of their hope to reduce the number below 100,000 by the end of the year so long as the insurgency does not worsen and Iraq makes continued progress on political and security fronts.

Casey said the breakthrough last weekend to name al-Maliki as prime minister and to fill six other top government posts ''certainly is a major step in the process'' of reducing troop levels this year. He said more must be done on the political side, particularly filling crucial government ministry jobs.

The Pentagon has not said when it expects to decide about further troop reductions. Casey had said late last year that he expected to submit his recommendation this spring.''Weare seeing the situation a little clearer, I'd say,'' as a result of the latest political progress, Casey said. ''And the clearer I see it, the better I can make my recommendations.'' Bush said last month that U.S. troops would stay in Iraq for years.

Administration hopes for a major pullout soon have been tempered by the insurgency and an increase in sectarian violence since February.

''I think we're fairly resolved on the military side to understand that this is going to take time,'' Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's senior officer, told reporters Wednesday. He said political leaders would make the major decisions about how long U.S. troops will remain deployed.

Rice said the United States has an obligation to be ready to do what will best help the emerging Iraqi leadership tackle persistent violence and such grinding problems as petty corruption and poor electricity.

Al-Maliki opposed both Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew the dictator more than three years ago. He has been described as a hard-line Shiite partisan and by U.S. officials as an Iraqi patriot who stood up to at have preserved much of the traditional way of life, with donkeys still providing the main means of land transport on streets that are too narrow for vehicles.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter The Associated Press

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