The top U.S. military general in Iraq says his intention to recommend a significant reduction in U.S. troop levels in the country later this year is basically on track, thanks in part to the selection of the country's new prime minister on Saturday. But after meeting in Baghdad with the visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the general said he wants to see a few more steps toward stability before he makes his recommendation.
Standing next to Secretary Rumsfeld in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, General George Casey said Saturday's parliament vote naming the new prime minister and other top officials was one of the things he was waiting for.
"It is certainly a major step in the process," he said.
But the general said there are a few more milestones the fledgling Iraqi government will have to pass before he will be ready to recommend a significant troop reduction to President Bush.
"This government formation now is another step. When they get the cabinet ministers identified, and the government then takes up its position and begins governing, that will be the next major step," said Casey. "And so we are seeing the situation a little clearer, I'd say, and the clearer I see it the better I can make my recommendations."
General Casey said he is on what he called his "general timeline." He previously said he expected to make a recommendation this spring that could include a significant troop reduction. He also noted that the process of transferring security authority to the new Iraqi army and police force has already begun in several parts of the country.
Rumsfeld was more cautious in his comment on future U.S. troop strength in Iraq.
"The question of our force levels here will depend on conditions on the ground and discussions with the Iraqi government, which will evolve over time," he said.
Rumsfeld was to meet with the new Iraqi leaders later in the day. He said he has heard that the new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, is working to form a government of competent ministers who understand the importance of fighting corruption and serving the entire country, not just any one sectarian group.
As usual, the secretary's visit to Iraq was not announced in advance. He arrived on a non-stop military flight from Washington, which left shortly after he urged reluctant members of Congress to fully fund his plans to train and equip Iraq's new security forces.
Rumsfeld has come under increasing criticism from some members of congress and some retired generals for his conduct of the war in Iraq. But he and the president have strongly defended his record. Asked Wednesday whether this might be his last visit to Iraq as secretary of defense, he answered simply, "No."