Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that setting a timeline for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would give a “lifeline for terrorists.” And in a spirited defense of the war, he invoked Abraham Lincoln and the American revolution.
But several Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned the progress of the war effort and the Bush administration’s handling of the war. During a particularly dramatic sequence, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, called the war a “quagmire” that had been “consistently and grossly mismanaged” by Mr. Rumsfeld. He also accused the defense secretary of making a series of misleading comments before and during the war.
“In baseball, it’s three strikes you’re out,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Isn’t it time for you to resign?”
After pausing to take a breath, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “Senator, I’ve offered my resignation to the president twice.” President Bush did not accept the resignations, the defense secretary said.
The Senate hearing took place against the backdrop of escalating violence in Iraq, including four car bombs detonated in Baghdad today, that killed at least 17 people and wounded 68 others. In recent days, several members of Congress have demanded an exit strategy and a scheduled withdrawal of American forces. But in his prepared testimony today, Mr. Rumsfeld said presenting a timeline “would be a mistake.”
“It would throw a lifeline to terrorists who in recent months have suffered significant losses and casualties, been denied havens and suffered weakened popular support,” said Mr. Rumsfeld. “Timing in war is never predictable. There are no guarantees. And any who say we’ve lost this war or that we’re losing this war are wrong. We are not.”
“Less than 140,000” American troops are in Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld said, down from a high of 160,00 during the Iraqi elections in January. He said the priorities of the remaining troops have shifted “from conducting security operations, essentially, to a heavier focus on training, equipping and assisting the Iraqi security forces.”
When asked about the strength of the insurgency, American commanders told the committee that the insurgents were at least as strong now as they had been six months ago. Gen. John P. Abizaid, who is in charge of multinational forces in Iraq, told the senators, “I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago.”
Mr. Rumsfeld, General Abizaid and the other commanders who testified today declined to endorse the position of Vice President Dick Cheney, who said recently that the insurgency in Iraq was in its “last throes.””Those words, though, I didn’t use them, and I might not use them,” said Mr. Rumsfeld, who did allow that insurgents might believe they are in their last throes.
Responding to pointed questions from Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, General Abizaid said he would not criticize the vice president, but added, “there’s a lot of work to be done against the insurgency.”
But Mr. Rumsfeld gave a relatively positive picture of the war.
“Iraqis are building an economy and it’s growing,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “The insurgency remains dangerous, particularly in several parts of Iraq, but terrorists no longer can take advantage of sanctuaries like Falluja. And coalition and Iraqi forces are capturing or killing hundreds of violent extremists on a weekly basis and confiscating literally a mountain of weapons.”
But he acknowledged that Iraqi forces are not ready to fight the war by themselves, and none of the officials said they could say how many are actually “combat ready.”
“A year ago, six Iraqi army battalions were in training,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “Today, dozens of trained battalions are capable of conducting armed anti-insurgent operations, albeit with coalition support. Sections of the country are relatively peaceful and essentially under the control of Iraqi security forces at the present time.”
Later, in questioning by Mr. Kennedy, the defense secretary said, “they’re not like U.S. forces, they’re never going to be like U.S. forces.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said he did not favor a six-month extension for the Iraqi government to write and ratify a constitution. Despite prodding from Mr. Levin, he did not agree that the Bush administration should pressure the Iraqi government to accelerate its pace by threatening a withdrawal of American forces.
Perhaps referring to declining support for the war, Mr. Rumsfeld mentioned the dark days of the American revolution in 1776, and quoted President Lincoln, who told Americans during the Civil War in 1864: “There may be mistakes made sometimes, and things done wrong, while the officers of the government do all they can to prevent mistakes. But I beg of you as citizens of this great republic, not to let your minds be carried off from the great work we have before us.”
Mr. Rumsfeld added, “That was good advice.”