President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq yesterday and said that it might be possible to withdraw some U.S. troops from the country thanks to recent security gains. Bush and Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, met at a remote desert air base in the Sunni province of Anbar to demonstrate that reconcilation of Iraq’s warring factions remains a top priority.

Bush said he didn’t know how many U.S. soldiers could be brought home, or when. “Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground—not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media,” Bush said.

“If ever there was a sign that we have turned a corner in the fight against both al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency, this was it,” said Frederick Kagan in National Review Online. A year ago, everyone thought the Anbar province was “hopelessly lost” to Sunni extremists. Now it’s safe enough for the entire “war cabinet” to meet there, and “Anbaris are looking to the Americans and the government of Iraq for legitimacy, for protection, and for inclusion in a political process they have spurned for years.”

“It's clear that the alliance made between U.S. troops and Sunni tribesmen is achieving relative stability in Anbar,” said Malou Innocent in the San Francisco Chronicle. But the arrangement makes Shiite leaders nervous, and some critics say the U.S. is “simply arming future fighters in a civil war.” So it’s anybody’s guess whether progress in Anbar will translate into “substantive political progress for Sunni Arabs or the cause of Iraqi national reconciliation.”

“Cajoling” Maliki into the Sunni desert is one thing, said The Economist in an editorial, but getting him to “form a more representative government” is quite another. Maliki’s “fractious coalition” remains opposed to making concessions the Sunnis want on government structures and the division of Iraq’s oil wealth, and one day of “political theater” won’t change anything.