BAGHDAD, AP – Iraq’s selection of top government leaders marked a major step toward creating conditions that could allow a substantial number of U.S. troops to leave in the months ahead, the top American commander in the country said Wednesday.
“I’m still on my general timeline,” Army Gen. George Casey told reporters after meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who arrived unannounced for a daylong series of meetings with top U.S. commanders and the newly selected Iraqi leaders.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into Baghdad from Turkey a few hours later to shore up the U.S. show of support for the newly emerging Iraqi government.
Casey did not elaborate on his timeline for reducing U.S. forces, but he has said in the past that a “fairly substantial” reduction could be made this year if the insurgency did not grow worse and if Iraq made continued progress on the political and security training fronts.
Asked whether the breakthrough agreements last weekend to name Jawad al-Maliki as prime minister and to fill six other top government posts moves U.S. officials closer to implementing the expected troop reductions this year, Casey replied, “It certainly is a major step in the process.”
He added that more needs to be accomplished on the political side, particularly in filling key government ministry jobs.
The Pentagon has not said when it expects to make decisions about further troop reductions. Casey had said late last year that he expected to submit his recommendation this spring.
“We are 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.”
Rumsfeld, who appeared before reporters with Casey, said one of the subjects they had discussed was engaging the emerging Iraqi government in talks on the future of military bases and the division of security responsibilities between American and Iraqi troops.
“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 responsiblity in the provinces,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said the United Nations Security Council resolution that forms the legal basis for U.S. operations to stabilize and rebuild Iraq is to expire at the end of the year so there will have to be talks with the Iraqi government on arrangements beyond this year.
Alluding to recent calls by several retired generals for Rumsfeld to resign, a reporter asked the 73-year-old defense secretary whether this would be his last trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief.
He replied with one word, and no smile: “No.”
In a show of support for Iraq’s emerging government, Rumsfeld arrived in the capital unannounced earlier Wednesday for meetings with al-Maliki and other newly selected leaders.
Rumsfeld, who flew overnight from Washington after a private meeting on Capitol Hill with a group of Republican senators, was expected to not only congratulate the Iraqis on breaking a deadlock over selection of a prime minister and other top political positions, but also to reinforce the Bush administration’s message that the Iraqis should not expect U.S. forces to remain indefinitely.
Casey had said last year that if the insurgency did not worsen and the Iraqis remained on track toward establishing a government of national unity, then fairly substantial reductions in the U.S. troop presence were likely this spring and summer. So far, the total has been reduced only slightly, from about 138,000 to about 132,500. No further cuts are scheduled.
Rumsfeld’s press secretary, Eric Ruff, told reporters aboard the defense secretary’s flight from Washington that Rumsfeld’s trip was designed to convey President Bush’s encouragement at the latest steps toward putting in place Iraq’s first fully constitutional government since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime three years ago.
“The president asked us to go and show support for their new government,” Ruff said.
In a break from past practice, Rumsfeld did not speak to reporters traveling with him on the 13-hour flight to Baghdad. Before he left Washington he met behind closed doors with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and about 15 other Republican members of the Senate to discuss the administration’s $72 billion supplementary budget request, Ruff said.
Rumsfeld also raised with the senators the subject of the global war on terrorism. Ruff said he told them that rising concerns about Iran, with its nuclear ambitions and verbal threats against Israel, make it all the more important for the United States to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If peaceful democracies are established on Iran’s western and eastern borders, then Iran will “lose big” in its efforts to advance Islamic extremism, Ruff quoted Rumseld as saying.
In an interview Monday with the Pentagon Channel, a television channel whose main audience is military members at home and abroad, Rumsfeld said he expected the insurgency to keep up the violence and try to stop the new political leadership in Baghdad from filling key ministry jobs with competent, non-sectarian officials.
Rumsfeld usually appears before one or more groups of U.S. troops when he visits Iraq, sometimes taking their questions. The troops usually do not ask Rumsfeld about Washington politics, but this visit comes in the immediate aftermath of an unusual public push by several retired generals to force Rumsfeld’s resignation.
Among the retired officers to speak out is John Batiste, a two-star general who retired last year after commanding the Army’s 1st Infantry Division in Iraq. Another is Charles Swannack, who commanded the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. Both said they believed Rumsfeld’s Iraq strategy had failed and that he had ignored the military’s advice.
President Bush, however, responded by stating unequivocally that he would not replace Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld’s visit to Iraq coincides not only with important progress on the political front in Baghdad but also with a recent surge in American casualties, which are on pace this month to hit the highest total since last November, when 84 U.S. troops died in Iraq.
The rise in U.S. deaths comes even as the Iraqi security forces are given more of a lead role in battling the insurgency, with the Americans in support. It has been expected that this shift of responsibilities would lead to fewer U.S. casualties.
This is Rumsfeld’s 12th visit to Iraq since the invasion and his first this year. On his most recent previous visit, on Christmas Eve, he spoke hopefully to U.S. troops about the outlook for political stability in Baghdad, but he also cautioned that a premature exit by the American military would jeopardize that stability.
Also during the December visit Rumsfeld announced the first of what is still expected to be a series of U.S. combat troop reductions in 2006. He said the U.S. force was being reduced from the equivalent of 17 brigades to 15 brigades, or from about 138,000 total troops to roughly 130,000. Right now there are about 132,000 there.