WASHINGTON – While critics of the war in Iraq continue to assail the Bush administration and push to bring U.S. troops home, a top U.S. military official told FOX News on Tuesday that the training of Iraqi forces is going "extremely well" and could help pave the way for a pullout timetable.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace outlined goals for U.S. forces six months from now on the same day that Iraqi leaders said their troops will be ready to take over in a year.
"Things have gone extremely well with regard to training the Iraqi armed forces and to getting that country up on its feet," Pace told FOX News in an exclusive interview. "There is absolutely no way that we can fail. The only way we can fail is if we lose our will or lose our patience."
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The number of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq could drop significantly if the training of Iraqi forces and the country's political process continue to go so well, Pace said.
"What we want to do is six months from now is to have only the amount of U.S. and coalition forces still needed," Pace said. "It's conceivable that we could have a major sea change in the way that the Iraqi people look at themselves and the way they are able to defend themselves."
Iraqis will head to the polls on Dec. 15, which U.S. officials point to as a major step toward democracy for the country.
On Tuesday, Iraqi leaders called for their own timetable to withdraw foreign forces in their country.
About 100 Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders signed a closing memorandum at a reconciliation conference in Cairo, Egypt, that "demands a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable, together with an immediate national program for rebuilding the security forces.
"The Iraqi people are looking forward to the day when foreign forces will leave Iraq, when its armed and security forces will be rebuilt and when they can enjoy peace and stability and an end to terrorism," according to the statement backed by the Arab League.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack responded to the memorandum by saying that the comments by the Iraqi leaders show that they are in line with the United States because they are "coming together to talk about ways to end violence."
"They are calling on people to confront terrorism, so I think that is certainly very positive," McCormack said.
The State Department remains committed to fostering stability and security in Iraq, spokeswoman Julie Reside added.
"We will stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer," she said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told FOX News that if the Iraqis want the United States out, that is their prerogative as a sovereign nation.
"Well, of course it's a sovereign government, but I would give the Iraqi government credit for really wanting to make the place secure," Rice said. "I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now for much longer because Iraqis are stepping up."
Lt. Gen. John Vines, the top operational commander in Iraq, said the U.S. military is developing a plan to respond to a request to leave.
"The coalition is here at the request of the Iraqi government. We are here at the request of the Iraqis," he said, adding that the military has "war-gamed" the possibility that a new Iraqi government elected in December will ask the coalition to leave.
"But I am not going to tell you about it. My job is to provide information for General Casey and it wouldn't be prudent," he said.
By international standards, the training of Iraqi security forces has gone well on a short timeline, Pace said. But as training continues and the December election nears, terrorist attacks will likely increase because the opposition is growing more desperate.
"The insurgents, the terrorists, are beginning to understand if they haven't already is that Iraq really is on a very solid path to a democratically elected representative form of government," Pace said. "That's got to terrorize the terrorists because what they're losing is the ability to instill fear."
U.S. officials and the White House doubted rumors that Al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was dead after a weekend raid in Mosul. Pace said no confirmation was available and Vines said he has no reason to believe Zarqawi was killed.
"There is a DNA database from some of his relatives that is able to be compared against some of those who were killed there. If he had been in one of those houses that were part of the objective, we could confirm that," he said.
Despite Zarqawi's attempts to gain power and kill, Pace said he believes that more people in the Mideast don't think the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq has much to offer.
Vines, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from his base in Iraq on Tuesday, said U.S. forces "see evidence that we're making considerable progress" in capturing and killing foreign fighters. Though he said the military doesn't take body counts, the number of foreign fighters showing up in a variety of venues is perhaps fewer "than half as many as they were in the summer."
He added that in his view the ability to fight the enemy in Iraq is essential to U.S. security.
"I believe in a very direct way our troops are helping to provide for the security and safety of our fellow citizens back home in the United States, and I believe there is a direct linkage between the security of our citizens back in the United States and what goes on here in Iraq because those jihadists, those terrorists seek to impose their will on Iraq. The U.S. is an archenemy and they would like to use Iraq as a base from which to strike us," he said.
But debate is growing in Washington about whether to remain in Iraq. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., called for a troop reduction instead of a full withdrawal, as proposed by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., last week. Obama also criticized the Bush administration for questioning the patriotism of war critics.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement on Tuesday that said staying the course is no solution to the challenges in Iraq.
"This week, Iraqi leaders at the Arab League conference in Cairo called for a timetable for withdrawing foreign forces from Iraq, further evidence of how far out of touch President Bush's Iraq policy is from reality," Pelosi said in a statement.
"Congressman John Murtha's courageous statement ignited a long overdue debate in Congress and the country over the administration's failed Iraq policy. Mr. Murtha spoke truth to power: the war in Iraq has not made America safer, it has stretched thin our military forces, and it has damaged our reputation around the world," she added.
Vines said the debate in Washington over the war in Iraq is "disturbing" but that is "what democracy is about." Pace added that he had no problem with war critics as long as they are dealing with reality.
"The debate's not bad, debates are good. But, we need to have all the facts on the table so people can have a dialogue, try to get the emotion out and try to get the facts in. And the facts as I know them, are incredible progress, very steady progress and every reason to believe in continuing progress," he said.
As the United States moves over to let Iraqis take the lead, senior U.S. commanders said 3,769 former officers of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein have applied to become officers in the new Army. Out of those, 2,662 have been accepted. Rice said the Iraqi government is also taking care to make sure the right individuals participate in Iraq's future.
"They hope to separate out the hard-core Saddamists from those who might have gotten caught of in the insurgency and now that might be able to be part of the political process," she said.
FOX News' Nick Simeone and Jim Angle contributed to this report.
Click into the video tab at near the top of story to watch a report by FOX News' Bret Baier.