President Bush’s troop increase in Iraq is not selling well at home, in part because critics worry that it won’t work and that even more troops might be on the way. But the top U.S. commander in the country is sounding a more optimistic note.

Gen. George Casey told reporters Friday that even as the first of the 21,500 U.S. reinforcements take their positions, security in the country might improve enough for the extra forces to start leaving by late summer.

“You’re going to see some progress gradually over the next 60 to 90 days,” Casey said, standing alongside the visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Asked when he thought some of the added U.S. troops could be pulled back, Casey replied, “I believe the projections are late summer, but the first troops are just arriving,” so nothing is sure.

Casey conceded that the plan’s success depends on the Iraqi government’s fulfilling its own pledges of adding troops and taking an aggressive approach to sectarian militias and death squads, he said. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to deliver on such promises before.

Most of the extra troops will be sent to Baghdad, with the rest going to Anbar Province, where the Sunni insurgency is focused.

Gates, making his second trip to Iraq since he took over for Donald H. Rumsfeld on Dec. 18, headed home after a daylong visit that was not announced in advance. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, just back from the Middle East, will meet with Bush on Saturday to on their trips.

Gates’ trip comes as the Bush administration begins a new phase in the war, including a troop buildup that has sparked widespread opposition in Congress and the general public, a reshuffling of Mideast commanders and diplomats and intensified military pressure on Iran. Congress is to take up nonbinding legislation opposing the buildup next week.

“Our goal is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself and live free from the scourge of extremism,” Gates said. “There’s widespread agreement here that failure would be a calamity for American national interests and those of many other countries as well.”

The first extra troops — a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division — have just arrived in Baghdad, and Gates said it was too early to predict how Bush’s plan for quelling the sectarian violence in the capital will work.

Four other brigades are to arrive between now and May, assuming the Iraqis follow through on their commitment to bring three additional Iraqi army brigades into Baghdad and to allow raids against all illegal militias.

Administration officials have declined to estimate how long the extra troops will be needed in Iraq, saying it depends on conditions. Gates said earlier this month that the increase seemed likely to last months, but not 18 months or two years.

Casey had expressed reservations about adding U.S. troops in Baghdad before Bush announced the plan on Jan. 10. The general said several factors had changed recently, including commitments by al-Maliki to not prohibit U.S. and Iraqi security forces from arresting leaders of Shiite militias who have political connections in the Maliki government.

Casey also said he was encouraged at the prospect of al-Maliki’s fulfilling his promise to send an extra three Iraqi army brigades to the capital to help the reinforced U.S. contingent.

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