Iraq's prime minister said he wants US troops "on their way out" as soon as his government can protect its new democracy. The top US general in the country said he hopes to begin significant withdrawal by next spring.
At the same time, in an unannounced visit on Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqi security forces should take on more tasks now performed by US troops.
US military commanders have repeatedly expressed hopes in recent months that they could begin major troop reductions next year, depending on the intensity of the insurgency. Even so, Wednesday's remarks seemed to signal a new willingness to discuss specific ways US troops might exit an increasingly unpopular war in which nearly 2,000 have died.
There was a subdued reaction in the US Congress.
Senator John McCain said he agreed with US General George Casey and Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that withdrawal would be possible only when the conditions permit it.
"I'm sure that the security situation at the time will dictate what they need to do," McCain said.
Al-Jaafari, speaking at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld, said, "The great desire of the Iraqi people is to see the coalition forces on their way out."
However, comments by Casey, the most senior commander of coalition forces in Iraq, drew the most notice. He told reporters that a "fairly substantial" withdrawal of troops could go ahead next year if the Iraqi political process is not derailed and the insurgency does not grow.
Rumsfeld did not comment on al-Jaafari's remarks, but told reporters separately that Iraq's leaders need to do more to relieve the burden on US forces. He said Iraqis need to start taking responsibility for guarding the estimated 15,000 US-held prisoners, and should meet the Aug. 15 deadline for completing a draft constitution.
"It would be very harmful to the momentum that's necessary" if the constitution is not finished on time, he said.
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