Rice, Rumsfeld Shore Up Iraqi PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concluded a one-day visit to Iraq on Thursday morning with a declaration of confidence in the prime minister-designate, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, as someone eager to re-establish public confidence in the government and rid the country's security forces of infiltration by sectarian militias.

"We are prepared to do whatever we can to help the Iraqi government meet the challenges before them," Rice told reporters at a brief news conference with Rumsfeld. "It is obviously going to take some time to do this work."

The two secretaries prepared to leave later in the morning after their night's stay, Rice in the heavily fortified green zone at a bend in the Tigris River in the city and Rumsfeld at Camp Victory, located near the airport a few miles outside Baghdad.

In remarks Thursday at a meeting with Rumsfeld, Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffak Al Rubaie, said there would be a large reduction in the U.S. troop presence by the end of the year.

"Certainly at the end of this year, there is going to be a sizeable gross reduction in U.S. troops," he said, speaking at the opening of a meeting between senior Iraqi and American officials.

He added that within the next two years, "We hope most coalition troops will go back home."

Rubaie, who has previously said 30,000 troops could withdraw from Iraq this year, also suggested that Iraqi and U.S. officials were working on a formal plan to turn over responsibility to Iraqi security forces as security conditions and other milestones were achieved.

Rumsfeld, who spoke after Rubaie's statement, made no comment on the Iraqi official's assertion that a large number of U.S. troops would be withdrawn this year. He has previously expressed hope that could happen but said it would depend on improvement in security conditions and other factors.

Iraqi troops have been taking over from U.S. forces in some areas of the country, but Rubaie's statement was the first suggestion that the pace of that transition and possible U.S. withdrawals was the subject of ongoing negotiations.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Ruff said he had no immediate comment on Rubaie's statements.

Throughout their visit, both Cabinet secretaries also sought to emphasize that their departments would be working cooperatively to bolster the Iraqi government, which Maliki says he wants to finish putting together in the next several days.

Asked if their appearance so quickly after Maliki's ascent might make him look as if he were an U.S. puppet, Rice dismissed the question.

"I don't think there is any doubt in anyone's mind that the 11 million Iraqis who went out and voted were exercising sovereignty and that this prime minister intends to do what he thinks is best for the Iraqi people," she said, calling his government "the most democratic process ever in the Middle East."

 A sister of Iraq's new Sunni Arab vice president was killed in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad on Thursday, police said, The Associated Press reported.

She died one day after her brother called for the Sunni-dominated insurgency to be crushed by force.

In southern Iraq, a bomb hit an Italian military convoy Thursday, killing four soldiers, Italy's government said.