AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Facing tough questions from battle-weary troops, Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday cited signs of progress in Iraq and signaled that force changes could come in 2006.
Cheney rode the wave of last week's parliamentary elections during a 10-hour surprise visit to Iraq that aimed to highlight progress at a time that Americans question the mission. Military commanders and top government officials offered glowing reports, but the rank-and-file troops Cheney met did not seem to share their enthusiasm.
''From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains," said Marine Corporal Bradley Warren, the first to question Cheney in a round-table discussion with about 30 military members. ''We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains. I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain -- how Iraq's looking."
Cheney replied that remarkable progress has been made in the last year and a half.
''I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq," he said. ''We're getting the job done. It's hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don't pay that much attention to the news."
Another Marine, Corporal R.P. Zapella, asked, ''Sir, what are the benefits of doing all this work to get Iraq on its feet?"
Cheney said the result could be a democratically elected Iraq that is unified, capable of defending itself, and no longer a base for terrorists or a threat to its neighbors. ''We believe all that's possible," he said.
Although he said any decision about troop levels will be made by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other military leaders, Cheney told the troops: ''I think you will see changes in our deployment patterns probably within this next year."
Iraqi troops will assume more and more responsibility in 2006 so that American forces can ''gradually pull back to a few locations," the vice president said in separate remarks. The United States would then be able reduce troop levels and take more of a standby role.
About 160,000 troops are in Iraq. The administration has said troop levels are expected to return to a baseline of 138,000 after the elections, but critics of the war have called for a significant drawdown.
More than 2,100 troops have died in Iraq since the United States invaded in March 2003.
Suicide bombers and gunmen killed nearly two dozen people across Iraq yesterday, shattering the relative quiet since the parliament election.
Germany's government, meanwhile, said kidnappers had freed a German woman who was taken hostage in northern Iraq more than three weeks ago. Susanne Osthoff, a 43-year-old aid worker and archeologist, was reported in good condition at the German Embassy in Baghdad.
Osthoff and her Iraqi driver disappeared Nov. 25 in northern Iraq. Days later, the two were shown in a videotape blindfolded and sitting on a floor, with militants -- one armed with a rocket-propelled grenade -- standing beside them.
A series of attacks that began late Saturday ended three days of near calm that began with Thursday's elections for the first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's was toppled.
Most of the people killed in the new violence, which included two suicide bombings, were police officers. The bloodshed came after authorities eased stringent security measures ordered for the elections and traffic returned to normal on the first full working day since the vote.
Cheney's visit, under heavy security, was so secret that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of Iraq was surprised when he met him at the US ambassador's residence in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Coming just hours before President Bush's address on Iraq, Cheney's one-day stop focused on the successful legislative election and the strong turnout in all of Iraq's religious and ethnic communities.
''The participation levels all across the country were remarkable," Cheney told reporters after an hourlong briefing from US military commanders. ''And that's exactly what needs to happen as you build a political structure in a self-governing Iraq that can unify the various segments of the population and ultimately take over responsibility for their own security."
The big turnout, particularly among Sunni Arabs who boycotted the election of an interim legislature Jan. 30, has raised expectations that increased political participation may undermine the Sunni-led insurgency and allow US troops to begin pulling out next year.
Cheney met with Iraq's leaders and military commanders in the Green Zone, saw an Iraqi troop training demonstration at Taji air base, lunched with soldiers, and gave a speech to troops.
Jaafari told Cheney that he estimated a record 70 percent of Iraq's 15 million registered voters went to the polls.
Iraqi authorities were still tallying the ballots that will determine the allocation of the parliament's 275 seats for four-year terms.
The election commission said it had received raw preliminary results in the form of tally sheets from seven provinces representing about 70 percent of the total vote.
Election officials expected today to release 80 percent of the results for Baghdad Province. The rest are due in days.