WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday he does not expect U.S. commanders to make a recommendation for withdrawing forces from Iraq until after the country appoints ministers of its fledgling government, perhaps by the end of May.
Rumsfeld said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have not yet been able to begin discussions with Iraqi defense and interior ministers "about the conditions on the ground and the responsibility being passed over to the Iraqis."
Once the Iraqi ministers are installed, Rumsfeld said, "I do expect that, after that happens, they will be having those discussions and that, as we pass over more responsibility, we ought to be able to reduce our forces."
Without those conversations taking place, Rumsfeld said he doubts that Casey or Gen. John Abizaid would recommend to Rumsfeld that the United States draw down its troops, now at about 130,000. Abizaid heads U.S. Central Command, which controls U.S. operations in the Middle East, and is based in Qatar and Tampa, Fla.
Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has 30 days from when he was selected for his new post on April 22 to form a new government that the United States hopes will eventually lead to withdrawal.
"The new government's just starting," the Pentagon chief said.
Rumsfeld made the comments on Capitol Hill after he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave lawmakers private briefings on their joint trip to Iraq last week, where they met with al-Maliki in a show of U.S. support.
In a brief appearance before reporters, Rice responded to a proposal by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., that Iraq be divided into three separate regions — Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni — with a central government in Baghdad.
Rice said Iraqis are responsible for making those decisions and their constitution already lays out a decentralized structure in which provinces get significant authority.
"This is a debate essentially Iraqis are going to have about this. And so far what they believe is in a unity government. They believe in a central government in Baghdad with autonomy for the provinces. And that's what we're going to try to support them in," she said.
U.S. officials have insisted there is no specific plan yet to reduce the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The Pentagon plans to gradually withdraw its troops as Iraqi security forces become more competent and capable of fighting the insurgency.
Late last year, Casey said he expected to submit his recommendation this spring. Last week, he told reporters, "I'm still on my general timeline."
U.S. officials have spoken before of their hopes of reducing troop strength in Iraq below 100,000 by the end of the year.
Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffak Rubaie, said last week: "Certainly at the end of this year there should be a sizable gross reduction in the troops." He added: "At the end of next year we would hope, or the next couple of years, we would hope that most of the coalition forces would go back home safely."