Officials: U.S. hopes to pull 30,000 troops
Rumsfeld, Rice visit Iraq, encourage formation of government
Gen. George Casey meets Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at Baghdad International Airport.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has tentative plans to reduce U.S. troops levels in Iraq by about 30,000 by the end of the year, senior military officials said Wednesday.
Casey said he is still on his "general timeline" for recommending further U.S. troop reductions.
The officials said that Casey is considering reducing troop levels from 15 brigades to about 10 brigades. (Watch how the plan depends on the development of Iraq's army and government -- 2:03)
That would mean U.S. troop levels could be under 100,000 by year's end, officials said. About 160,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq in December, when security was tightened for the country's parliamentary elections. About 130,000 are in the country now.
Casey met Wednesday with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Baghdad on an unannounced mission to show support for Iraq's move toward a new government.
The visit came a day after al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi surfaced in a lengthy Web video scorning the coalition and the Iraqi government, and urging unity among militants. (Full story)
Roadside bombings, a tactic seen almost daily in Iraq, killed four civilians and wounded 15 others in central Iraq on Wednesday.
After meeting with Casey, Rumsfeld told reporters that "the question of our forces' levels here will depend on conditions on the ground and discussions with the Iraqi government, which will evolve over time."
Military officials familiar with troop-level planning told CNN that reductions would happen by attrition: Some units would not be replaced when they rotate home later this year.
The officials said the U.S. plan is to consolidate forces at several large "super-bases," to lower their profile and move them out of the line of fire.
The possibility of reducing troops in Iraq comes as some retired top military generals are openly expressing dismay at the way the administration has been conducting the war.
Rice praises prime minister-designate
Rumsfeld and Rice met with Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki and urged Iraqi lawmakers to work pragmatically and in the spirit of compromise to get their government going.
Last week, Iraqi lawmakers broke an impasse over the selection of a prime minister when President Jalal Talabani designated al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the post. Since then, al-Maliki has decided to use his real name rather than Jawad al-Maliki, which he adopted while in exile. (Full story)
Rice said al-Maliki "talked about bringing back the trust between Iraqis and this government. That seems to me to be the right place to start."
Al-Maliki must present a new government to parliament by May 21. In the past, however, squabbling Iraqi lawmakers have missed other deadlines. It is conceivable that the parliament might reject the new government and prompt more delays.
Rice indicated that the prime minister-designate has personal qualities that could enable him to prevail in Iraq's prolonged political negotiations.
Rice praised al-Maliki as "totally candid about his views" and someone "who is going to be a unifier because he's known as somebody who stands on principle."
Rice described meetings with Iraqi and U.S. Embassy leaders as "very stimulating," enabling Rumsfeld and her to "take a look at the nexus between political and military issues because, after all, the security issues here have both a political and a military aspect."
Rice said she was optimistic about efforts to form a government. The preceding post-Saddam Hussein governing bodies "were all leading up to this moment," she said.
"It's a very hopeful sign to talk with Sunnis who are now very integrated into the political process, who have very senior roles in the new government," Rice said.
The United States believes a permanent government would provide the stability needed to restore law and order and defeat the insurgency, she said.
The insurgency "has to be defeated politically, not just militarily," she said, acknowledging that the "violence is not going to stop immediately."
Earlier this week, al-Maliki said he thinks U.S. troops could begin withdrawing in 18 months or less if his country's security forces get up to speed. He also promised to tackle the problem of militias, the armed groups thought to be fueling sectarian violence. (Full story)
The defense secretary, who flew to Baghdad on orders from President Bush, arrived in Iraq on a C-17 military transport. Rice arrived six hours later, flying in from Turkey.
At a news conference with Casey, Rumsfeld said Iraq is moving forward. "This is a sovereign country, and they are making impressive progress," he said.
"We now are moving through another important milestone -- the formation of a new government, a sovereign government of Iraq," Rumsfeld said.
CNN's Ryan Chilcote and Auday Sadik contributed to this report.
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