As the top U.S. commander in Iraq suggested today that the United States would soon reduce the number of troops in Iraq, Pentagon planners said to ABC News that they hoped to pull more than 30,000 troops out by the end of the year, and possibly by as early as November.
The reductions depend on political and security progress in Iraq.
In a surprise visit to Baghdad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hailed progress toward the formation of a new Iraqi government as a "turning point" that would enable the United States to turn over more responsibility to the Iraqis.
Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, called the recent selection of new Iraqi leaders, including incoming Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a major step toward a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In late December, Rumsfeld announced a reduction in U.S. troops that brought the number down from 150,000 to 132,000, and suggested more withdrawals would be coming. Casey suggested at the time that reductions would come by March, and the Pentagon had started planning to bring the number of troops down to 100,000 by the end of the year.
Instead of further reductions, 650 troops were added in March because of worsening violence and political deadlock. Plans for further withdrawals were frozen.
With the political deadlock in Iraq now apparently broken, Casey said today: "I'm still on my general timeline."
Pentagon officials said they were once again for troop withdrawals. First, the 650 extra troops sent to Iraq in March are expected to leave shortly and head back to Kuwait. Second, a recommendation from Casey is expected within weeks on more substantive reductions, possibly as many as 10,000 troops.
Depending on conditions in Iraq, Casey would initiate additional reductions by the end of the summer. Officials caution, however, that the reductions depend entirely on making progress in Iraq.
On the plane ride to Baghdad, Rice told reporters, "It's the Iraqis who are now in a position to deal with their problems in ways that I think they've not been in the past."