WASHINGTON – On the eve of President Bush's summit on Iraq, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad predicted Sunday that coalition troops will gradually move out of the country in the coming months.
Gen. George Casey said he thinks it will be possible to withdraw some of the 130,000 U.S. forces in the months ahead as long as Iraq's government and security forces make progress.
Casey would not say whether he plans to advise Bush on a troop reduction plan during two days of meetings with the administration's top national security officials that begin Monday at Camp David in Maryland. But the general hinted the time soon may come for such a recommendation.
"I was waiting until we got a government seated before I gave the president another recommendation so we have some sense of what we've got," Casey said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.
Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, took office last month and appointed the key final ministers last week.
"I think as long as the Iraqi security forces continue to progress and as long as this national unity government continues to operate that way and move the country forward, I think we're going to be able to see continued gradual reductions of coalition forces over the coming months and into next year," Casey said.
Iraq's national security adviser said he believed the number of coalition forces would drop below 100,000 by year's end. Mouwafak al-Rubaie also said the majority of coalition forces would leave before mid-2008.
"The more our Iraqi security forces, our police, our army, the more they grow in number, in training and are ready and able to perform and to protect our people, then the less we need of the multinational forces," al-Rubaie told a cable news network.
With Baghdad's government in place and terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi killed last week by a U.S. airstrike, Bush set up the meetings to re-evaluate his Iraq policy. Casey and other military commanders are to participate by videoconference with the president and his national security team.
Bush also plans to hear from outside experts and ministers in al-Maliki's government who will join in from Baghdad.
White House officials have played down expectations of troop cutback announcements coming from the discussions.
Bush says he will make decisions about troops levels based on recommendations from Casey and other military commanders in Iraq. Although Casey said "it's not likely" that he would request more troops during the discussions, he did not rule out bringing in more to help secure Baghdad in the future.
"Right now we're not planning on it, but it's possible," Casey told "FOX News Sunday."
"I constantly evaluate the situation," Casey said. "And if I think I need more, I'll ask for more. If I think I need less, I'll tell the president that I need less."
Casey described a "great shift" in responsibility from U.S. forces to the Iraqis over the past year. He said more Iraqis are taking the lead in the fight, although he said that does not mean they can operate without support such as logistics, intelligence, medical evacuations.
"We think by the end of the summer, some 75 percent of the Iraqi brigades will be in the lead," Casey said. "And we think by the end of the year, almost all the Iraqi divisions will be capable of leading."
Casey said a bigger problem exists among the police forces that are vulnerable to infiltration by the militias. He said the coalition leadership will be working with Iraq's new interior minister to address that challenge.
Two senators, appearing after al-Rubaie on the same cable show, said they were encouraged by his timetable for foreign troops to withdraw.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a member of the Armed Service Committee, said he hopes it is realistic. "We have to get our forces out," Reed said. "Our forces are under tremendous wear and tear."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the United States should hold the Iraqis to that timetable.
"That's an authoritative statement," Specter said. "Now let's see him do it."