WASHINGTON – Sen. Joe Lieberman, fresh from a two-day visit to Iraq over the Thanksgiving holiday, said Monday he was hopeful U.S. forces could begin a "significant" withdrawal by the end of next year or in 2007.
"The country is now in reach of going from Saddam Hussein to self-government and, I'd add, self-protection," the Connecticut Democrat said in a conference call with reporters. "That would be a remarkable transformation ... I saw real progress there."
Lieberman, one of the most hawkish Democrats in the Senate, said the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces and the ability of a new Iraqi government to rule after the Dec. 15 elections are critical factors in determining when U.S. troops could come home. But if all goes well, he forsees a pullout beginning a year from now.
"If Iraqi forces continue to gain the confidence the American military sees there now ... We will be able to draw down our forces," he said.
Lieberman has visited Iraq four times in 17 months. He said there are signs life is returning to normal, including a profusion of cell phones and satellite TV dishes on rooftops.
"About two-thirds of the country is in really pretty good shape," he said, noting most attacks are in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" region. "Overall, I came back encouraged."
Lieberman said he hopes President Bush's speech Tuesday night will give a clearer picture to the American public of the progress being made in the war.
"It's time for some details," said Lieberman. "He's gotta describe some of the progress that I saw there. It's gotta be realistic."
U.S. military officials told him they hope that by next year, two-thirds of Iraq's military will be able to carry the fight to insurgents with limited logistical support from U.S. forces. Lieberman said U.S. commanders had learned from their early mistakes and were successfully pursuing a "clear-hold-build" strategy against rebel forces.
He cautioned, however, that "prematurely" pulling out U.S. forces would jeopardize the progress made thus far.
The senator said he ate three Thanksgiving meals at different bases visiting with troops, including about 50 soldiers from Connecticut.
"They look good, they're proud of what they're doing and of course they're anxious to get home, but they know they have a job to do," said Lieberman.
Lieberman wanted to personally report back to the families of the troops, but he said most of them had already sent back e-mails or telephoned home news of the meeting to friends and family in Connecticut.
The recent partisan battle in Congress over Iraq, including Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha's call for an immediate troop pullout, has not significantly hurt troop morale, Lieberman added.
"As one general said, they're devoted to each other and the cause," Lieberman said.
The senator said some U.S. commanders expressed concern that some soldiers who were on their second or third deployments were suffering from stress.