By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON - Iraq is entering a "time of hope," as its citizens' continue to step forward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a previously unannounced trip to Baghdad.
Rice, who is traveling with President Bush on his trip to the Middle East, broke off from the party in Saudi Arabia for meetings with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Mahmud Zebari in Baghdad.
Bush said during a media availability in Riyadh that Rice's trip was to encourage Iraqi leaders to continue to make political progress.
"It seemed to make sense that she ... go and sit down with the leaders and encourage them to continue making progress," the president said.
The Iraqi legislature had passed a de-Baathification law to make it easier for some members of the country's former regime to work with the new government, and is working on revenue-sharing as well as hydrocarbon and election laws.
"I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I should stop by," Rice said during a news conference in Baghdad with Zebari.
Rice said that at every stop the president has made during his trip, he has been asked about the situation in Iraq.
The president "has talked about the importance that Iraq's neighbors support a democratic and unified Iraq," Rice said. "The efforts that are being made here toward democracy and reconciliation are critical, not just for the future of Iraq, but for the future of the region and indeed for the future of the world."
Rice said the current plan to redeploy four brigades of U.S. soldiers back to the United States by the summer still stands. A fifth brigade combat team already has redeployed. What happens to U.S. troop levels in Iraq after that will depend on progress on the ground, she said.
The president's decision will be based on advice from commanders after the situation is "assessed in real terms," Rice said. The assessment will include the capabilities of the Iraqi forces and the capabilities of the enemy.
"The president is going to make those decisions based on what is needed to continue the progress that has been seen," she said. "But he has said that he believes we are on track for the initial drawdown that (Army) Gen. (David H.) Petraeus talked about back in Washington. Anything further he'll have to look at."
Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Force Iraq, made his recommendations in a September report to Congress.
The president's Middle East trip is happening at a time of hope in Iraq, Rice said. Security progress is the most noticeable, "but I must say from the time that I was here a month ago, I've seen also progress on the political front, particularly in the reconciliation that the Iraqi people themselves are carrying out at the grassroots (level)," she said. "You are seeing citizens emerge who are determined to fight the extremists, the terrorists, the foreign fighters who have been a scourge to this country and have endangered the lives of Iraqis and stability of this country."
As the citizens are fighting back and taking control, Iraqi provincial leadership is emerging and moving forward, she said. "I also have had discussions with the national leadership during my time here, and there seems to be a spirit of cooperation to move forward on the national front as well," she said.
Iraqi and U.S. leaders are working on a long-term treaty between the two nations, Rice and Zebari said.
"Until we are able to stand on our feet, the United States is a strategic and strong ally to Iraq," Zebari said through a translator. "The United States has similar agreements with other Arab states."
The secretary noted that the United States has been an important stabilizing force in the Middle East and Persian Gulf for decades. "We look forward to a relationship with Iraq for the long term that would be befitting of friends that have sacrificed together to bring into being this democratic Iraq, and to contributing to the stability of Iraq and the stability of this whole region," she said.