BAGHDAD, Iraq - Success in forming a new Iraqi government may let some U.S. troops leave the war zone within months, the top American military commander in Iraq said Wednesday.
Paying a surprise visit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld embraced the country's fledgling leaders as independent and focused on the future.
"I came away most encouraged," Rumsfeld said after he and Rice spent a day meeting with Iraqi politicians and U.S. military and diplomatic advisers in the capital city.
Rice called the priorities and commitment of Iraq's newly selected prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, "refreshing and really heartening."
The double-barreled show of support for Iraq's first permanent democratic government was meant to resonate in Iraq and among Americans, whose frustration with the war effort has helped drive President Bush's poll numbers to new lows.
A four-month political stalemate had sapped support for U.S. involvement in Iraq. The administration remains under election-year pressure from the public and many in Congress to draw down its forces there.
"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 responsibility in the provinces," Rumsfeld said.
Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander, said selection of government leaders marked a major step toward creating conditions that could allow a partial withdrawal.
"I'm still on my general timeline" for a possible withdrawal, he told reporters after meeting with Rumsfeld.
Casey used no figures. There are about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and military officials have spoken before of their hopes of reducing that number below 100,000 by the end of the year if the insurgency does not grow worse and if Iraq makes continued progress on political and security fronts.
Casey said breakthrough agreements last weekend to name al-Maliki as prime minister and to fill six other top government posts "certainly is a major step in the process" of reducing troop levels this year. He said more must be done on the political side, particularly 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."
Rice said the United States has an obligation to be ready to do what will best help the emerging Iraqi leadership tackle persistent violence and such grinding problems as petty corruption and poor electricity.
The secrecy surrounding the two leaders' visit and the omnipresent security precautions inside the fortified U.S. government complex underscored the dangers and difficulties the Iraqi leaders inherit.
The trip also came after recent calls by a half-dozen retired generals for Rumsfeld, 73, to resign. Asked by a reporter whether this visit - his 12th - would be his last trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief, an unsmiling Rumsfeld replied, "No."
Rice refused to second-guess the course of U.S. involvement in Iraq more than three years into a war that two-thirds of Americans now say the president is handling badly.
"Have we made mistakes? I'm sure we have," Rice told reporters with Rumsfeld beside her. "In a big historical circumstance like this you're going to do some things well and you're going to do some things not well."
Last month, Rice said the United States had made thousands of tactical errors in Iraq, a remark Rumsfeld said confused him. Their unusual joint appearance was also intended to show the sometimes feuding U.S. diplomatic and military branches engaged side by side.
Al-Maliki was largely unknown outside Iraq before he emerged last week as a compromise candidate to break a four-month political logjam. Neither Rice nor Rumsfeld had met him before Wednesday's session, and Rice met with him a second time privately.
Al-Maliki opposed both Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew the dictator more than three years ago. He has been described as a hardline Shiite partisan and by U.S. officials as an Iraqi patriot who stood up to attempted political meddling by neighboring Iran.
He has a month to form Iraq's first permanent democratic government, and U.S. officials are direct about the high stakes.
"This new Iraqi government must perform on behalf of the Iraqi people, but the new government also gives us a chance to correct our mistakes and do our part to make Iraq work," said Jim Wilkinson, a senior adviser to Rice.
The American ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has said Iraq risks civil war if its political leadership falters.