WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the decision to remove a large number of U.S. troops from Iraq will ultimately be based on conditions on the ground, even though hopes are to reduce the number of troops to below 100,000 this year.
"As General Casey has said, if Iraqi forces continue to develop in the way that they have — they're taking and holding territory, they performed very well in the light of this recent sectarian violence, the Army did — then it is entirely likely that there will be drawdowns of American forces over this next year," Rice told FOX News Sunday.
About 133,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to predict when they would pull out, saying Casey, the top commander in Iraq, has not made a recommendation on when and whether to reduce the force structure.
"The level of the forces in Iraq will depend on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of the commanders," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said he does anticipate a drawdown of U.S. troops this year "because we think the government will be formed, it will meet with reasonable acceptance," and Iraqi security forces will perform well.
The military is carrying out plans announced by Rumsfeld in December to cut troop levels this year by up to 7,000 soldiers by canceling the planned deployment of two Army brigades. Further cuts are being debated.
Military leaders have said a drawdown of U.S. troops cannot be done until Iraqi soldiers display enough mettle to take on insurgents — as well as loyalty to a civilian government that represents Iraq's major groups: Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.
During a White House news conference last week, President Bush said the decision to remove all troops from Iraq will likely be left up to a future U.S. president and a future Iraqi government.
Iraqis elected a national assembly on Dec. 15. Out of that is supposed to come a national government and leadership structure. But Iraqis are still struggling to put together that unity government. Defending the length of time it has taken to put together a government, Rice said that Iraqis are not just dividing up jobs, they are also setting up a plan by which they will lead.
"Whenever there is an election and you have to form a government of national unity, and no one can form a government on their own — no one got enough votes to form a government on their own — there are going to be negotiations and sometimes protracted negotiations. That's not unknown in the West," Rice said
But Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told "FOX News Sunday" that the Bush administration isn't being tough enough on the Iraqis in urging them to form a government posthaste.
He said his assessment, after having just returned from Iraq, is that "there's a gridlock" and Iraqi leaders are counting on the U.S. to protect them, which can't be the unending mission if Iraqis don't work out a political compromise.
"They're behind their own schedule for selecting a Cabinet, and instead of making it easy for them to continue this gridlock by telling us how complicated it is and by telling the American people to be patient, as the president recently did, we should be putting plenty of pressure on the Iraqis," Levin said, adding that he would decline to put a deadline but "would put the word prompt in there, that they must promptly agree to a political settlement."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said U.S. troops are "a crutch" for Iraq and their presence continues to fuel the insurgency.
"The best way to remove that crutch is to see a substantial withdrawal of American troops. That's what I'm for," Kennedy said on a Sunday morning network news show.
On the matter of the Russians allegedly giving intelligence about U.S. military plans to Saddam Hussein before the 2003 war, Rice said she doesn't know if that is true or not, but she intends to "raise it with the Russian government."
The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service denies allegations raised in a Pentagon report released last week that said two captured Iraqi documents indicate that Russia obtained information from sources "inside the American Central Command" in Qatar and passed that battlefield intelligence to Saddam through the former Russian ambassador in Baghdad, Vladimir Titorenko.
Rice, who was President Bush's national security adviser at the time of the invasion, said she knew nothing of these reports back then, but it's important to take a hard look at them now and understand what the documents reveal.
"I will tell you that we take very seriously any suggestion that a foreign government may have passed information to the Iraqis prior to the American invasion that might have put our troops in danger," Rice said. She could not say whether the intelligence let to any U.S. troops being killed on the battlefield.
Even with the suggestion that the Russians betrayed the United States by working at cross purposes, Rice said the two nations are continuing to work closely on getting Iran to stop trying to develop its nuclear program, which could lead to the advent of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Rice said U.S. and Russian officials were meeting over the weekend to discuss the approach to be used by the U.N. Security Council, which can't seem to agree on how to deal with a defiant Tehran.
"The Iranians are defying the world's will, and the international community needs to speak and speak with one voice," Rice said. "There are some tactical issues about how best to express that."
The administration did express pleasure at another country in the region — Afghanistan, whose judiciary on Sunday dropped charges against a man who had converted from Islam to Christianity, a violation of Shar'ia law that could have ended in the death penalty for Abdul Rahman.
Rice said she hadn't yet confirmed Rahman's release, apparently permitted based on a lack of evidence, but that the dismissal indicated a positive development for Afghanistan, which is struggling with the growing pains of democracy.
Afghanistan is "going through one of the most difficult debates that any society goes through, and that is the proper role of religion in the politics of the state," she said. "It's a young democracy that now does have a constitution that is in accordance with the modern age, but, of course, they're going to have difficulties and conflicts. ... What we have to do is stand with the Afghans to continue to insist on the principle and to help them work through some of these contradictions."
Levin added that the court's move reflects "a good reason to be optimistic about Afghanistan."
FOX News' Molly Henneberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.