Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that he couldn't promise that any U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq this year, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered much the same message on the "Meet the Press" over the weekend. Asked whether she was optimistic that there would be troop withdrawals this year, Rice said: "Well, Im, Im optimistic that the Iraqis are taking more security responsibility and are better trained. I think it would be premature before we've had a chance to talk with the new Iraqi government to start talking about precisely what's going to happen in terms of our own forces."
Tony Blair has just talked with the new Iraqi government -- he was in Baghdad today -- and he's coming close to the sort of commitment that Rumsfeld and Rice have avoided. Blair appeared at a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who announced an "agreement for the transfer of security" that would start next month and lead to Iraqi control of 14 of 16 provinces by the end of 2006.
Blair apparently refused to commit publicly to a specific timetable, but there's word that he may be saving that for his trip to Washington later this week. Writing for Raw Story, Michael Smith, the reporter who broke the story of the Downing Street memos, says that Blair and George W. Bush will jointly announce a "phased withdrawal" of troops from Iraq as they meet for an Iraq summit at the White House. The withdrawal, Smith says, will reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq from about 133,000 to about 100,000 by the end of the year.
If Smith is right, Bush will no doubt use the announcement as a way to show that the United States really is turning corners and making progress in Iraq. But we've seen that "100,000 by the end of 2006" formulation come and go a lot of times over the last year, and we can't help remembering Rumsfeld's claim -- back in the spring of 2003 -- that U.S. troop levels might be reduced to 30,000 by the end of 2003. We're all for bringing the troops home. But we'll believe that it's happening -- and that it's not just words meant to buy time until after the midterm elections in November -- when we see their planes landing on U.S. soil.