- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

[11:45 a.m.]

BAGHDAD (AP) — President Bush’s top two national security officials made a surprise visit to Iraq today, showing support for the emerging government as the top U.S. military commander there said some U.S. troops may be able to leave in the months ahead.

Army Gen. George Casey said Iraq’s selection of top government leaders marked a major step toward creating conditions that could allow a partial withdrawal.

“I’m still on my general timeline,” Gen. Casey told reporters after meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who arrived unannounced for a daylong series of meetings with top U.S. commanders and the newly selected Iraqi leaders.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew separately in from Turkey a few hours later to shore up the U.S. show of support.

“We just want to make sure there are no seams between what we’re doing politically and what we’re doing militarily,” Ms. Rice told reporters on her plane en route to Iraq. “Secretary Rumsfeld and I are going to be there together because a lot of the work that has to be done is at that juncture between political and military.”

She and Mr. Rumsfeld huddled with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other top U.S. military and civilian officials for lunch. They then met for 50 minutes with the newly designated prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, at Khalilzad’s house inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone.

Mr. al-Maliki told Ms. Rice and Mr. Rumsfeld that his first priority is addressing mistrust among Iraq’s ethnic factions and said success on that front will give a head start toward addressing security, terrorism, violence and corruption.

On the question of corruption he agreed with Ms. Rice and Mr. Rumsfeld that selecting strong, competent and nonsectarian leaders for key jobs will help Iraqis have confidence in the new government.

He said as a practical matter, one of the first things he wants to do is address a long-standing irritant for ordinary Iraqis: the poor quality or lack of electricity.

Ms. Rice scheduled a separate one-on-one meeting with Mr. al-Maliki later. The Bush administration is hoping the selection of Mr. al-Maliki, which ended a four-month standstill in the creation of a permanent Iraqi government, will spur political progress and speed the withdrawal of some American troops.

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