The U.S. secretaries of state and defense are both in Baghdad for what officials say is an unprecedented joint visit to show strong support for the country's newly elected leaders. During the visit, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said the parliament's vote on Saturday was a "major step" toward enabling him to recommend a reduction in U.S. troop strength in the country, but he is not quite ready to do so yet.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld staged a unique photo opportunity for any foreign leader, posing with Iraq's designated Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki just four days after he was elected by parliament. The vote marked the end of four months of political deadlock, and U.S. officials hope it also marks the beginning of a new phase of progress in addressing Iraq's daunting problems - the insurgency, powerful militias that challenge the central government's power, economic problems and still-faltering public services, among others.
Secretary Rice called the new prime minister "really impressive" and said he is focused on finding competent people to run his ministries, particularly for the key posts at defense and interior so that all Iraqis can feel that this is their government. She also disputed the suggestion that the high-profile visit by the two senior U.S. cabinet officials might appear to some to call the new prime minister's autonomy into question.
"We know that he has not always agreed with us or us with him, but he is somebody who has always had the interests of the Iraqis at heart and worked hard on their behalf," said Rice. "And people can say whatever they please, but this is a sovereign government, a permanent government, a government that is being formed out of an electoral process in which Iraqis voted in overwhelming numbers, and it's the most democratic process ever in the Middle East."
Secretary Rice said Prime Minister-designate Malaki is particularly focused on gaining control of the sectarian militias, which U.S. and Iraqi officials say represent the biggest long-term threat to the country's security. Secretary Rice said it is too early to expect details because the new government has not yet been formed. But she said as Iraqi security forces improve, part of the reason for the militias to exist will disappear. Rice and Secretary Rumsfeld said the solution to the militia problem may well be more political than military.
Regarding the question of future U.S. troop levels, Secretary Rumsfeld said he discussed it with the new Iraqi officials on Wednesday, but they were not demanding any rapid U.S. withdrawal.
"What we did talk about was the importance of the new government meeting with General Casey and his people and discussing the kind of steps that will be taken to continue to transfer over responsibility to the Iraqis so that we can continue to reduce coalition forces," he said. "But there was no one who came up and said, 'Gee, we think there ought to be more' or less, at all."
Earlier in the day, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said his intention to recommend a significant reduction in U.S. troop levels in the country later this year is basically on track, in part thanks to the selection of the country's future seven top leaders on Saturday. But General George Casey said he wants to see a few more steps toward stability before he makes his recommendation.
"I've said let's wait until we get a government formed," he said. "We've got the leadership here, we need to get the ministers formed, get them in the job and we'll see how they go. But I'm still on my general timeline."
General Casey has previously said he expected to make a recommendation this spring that could include a fairly significant troop reduction. He also noted Wednesday that the process of transferring security authority to the new Iraqi army and police force has already begun in several parts of the country.