WASHINGTON (AFP) -US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated that conditions for a gradual pullout of US troops from violence-torn Iraq could become ripe "fairly soon," but warned that a decision about their withdrawal will not be made unilaterally.
Appearing on two television channels, Rice said the possibility of handing over to Iraqis important security responsibilities is being constantly discussed in Baghdad by coalition commander General George Casey and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
And in both interviews she stressed that the moment when US soldiers will start returning home could be close.
"The president has said that as soon as Iraqi forces are ready, we want to see a reduction in our own forces, and I think those days are going to be coming fairly soon when Iraqis are going to be more and more capable of carrying out the functions to secure their own future," Rice told Fox News Channel.
On CNN, Rice said the number of international coalition forces in Iraq "is clearly going to come down" because, as she suspected, "the American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they are there for all that much longer."
The comments followed an appeal from prominent Iraqi politicians, many of them candidates in upcoming December 15 elections, who said at a conference in Cairo that they wanted to see "a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable."
But while acknowledging that Iraq had a sovereign government, Rice said firmly that "this is going to be a joint decision until we leave."
About 159,000 US troops are currently deployed in Iraq ahead of the vote that is expected to produce the country”s first democratically-elected permanent government since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in April 2003.
Once the election is over, the number of US troops is expected to be brought back to about 138,000, which US defense officials refer to as the "baseline."
Rice insisted that for the US troop withdrawal to begin, Iraqi security forces should demonstrate their ability to "hold territory."
"It”s seeing them be able to go in and defend that highway from the airport that was always considered such a violent highway," the secretary of state explained on Fox News.
However, she assured that Iraqi forces were already capable of performing many of the security functions carried out until recently by US troops.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stated repeatedly in recent weeks that the US posture and role in Iraq will be reassessed following the December 15 elections.
While top administration officials have refused to commit to a specific withdrawal timetable, Rice”s suggestion it could begin earlier rather than later came amid growing pressure from Congress, where the US role in Iraq is dominating the debate.
The issue was propelled to the fore by Democratic Representative John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), a highly-decorated former US marine, who last Thursday called for an immediate US pullout from Iraq, suggesting bringing the soldiers home within six months.
Since then, other lawmakers have volunteered their own plans, all of which call for bringing home significant numbers of US troops.
Earlier Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama, a rising star in the Democratic Party, said the United States needed not a time-table, "but a time-frame" for a phased withdrawal.
"We need to say that there will be no bases in Iraq a decade from now and the United States armed forces cannot stand up and support an Iraqi government in perpetuity," he said in a speech in Chicago.
Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is mulling a 2008 presidential run, said Monday that he would like to see 50,000 troops pulled out of Iraq next year and "a significant number" of the remaining 100,000 in 2007.