The US could begin withdrawing forces from Iraq this year if a new strategy for ending the violence makes progress, said US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
"If these operations actually work, you could begin to see a lightening of the US footprint both in Baghdad and potentially in Iraq itself," Gates said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday.
President George W Bush announced this week that he is sending an additional 21,500 soldiers to Iraq to quell violence that has plagued the country and led to concern of a civil war between Shias and Sunnis.
Gates cautioned that it also requires the Iraqi government to take steps to better secure the country and find political solutions to the tension between Shias and Sunnis. He conceded that the Iraqi government does not have a good track record in fulfilling promises.
"If you lower the level of sectarian violence significantly, some of these political commitments that have been made before and not met are met, then you could have a situation later this year where you could actually begin withdrawing," he said in his second day of testimony to defend the plan before Congress.
Congressional Democrats and some members of Bush's Republican Party have strongly criticised the troop surge, saying it is more likely to worsen the conflict. They argue Bush should starting pulling out to place more pressure on the Iraqi government to overcome sectarian differences and take responsibility for security.
Bush's revised plan for Iraq has done little to turn around public opinion against the war, according to a poll released on Friday.
Only 32 per cent of those polled said they supported Bush's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, while 66 per cent are against the build-up, the CNN poll said. Fifty per cent said they "strongly oppose" the troop increase.
Forty-eight per cent said enlarging the US presence will make "no difference" in achieving US goals there, and only 35 per cent said they believe Bush has a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq.