WASHINGTON – President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday defended U.S. strategy in Iraq, saying the ultimate goals remain unchanged despite escalating violence and increasingly somber assessments from military leaders on the ground.
Speaking at a Washington fundraiser, Bush said the U.S. goal in Iraq “is clear and unchanging:” creating a country that can govern and defend itself and “that will be an ally in the war against these extremists.”
In a briefing later at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld played down the significance of fighting and sectarian violence that has erupted over the past few days outside of Baghdad, as U.S. troops in Iraq suffer some of the highest monthly casualties since the 2003 invasion.
The U.S. military strategy of handing over security to Iraqi forces will never be a “straight, smooth, steady path,” and American troops may have to step back in repeatedly to quell outbreaks of violence, Rumsfeld said.
But Rumsfeld rejected the suggestion that this means the U.S. strategy of “clear, hold and build” is failing.
The remarks came amid growing concern among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers about the administration’s Iraq plan, with some predicting that upcoming elections and the apparent lack of progress on the ground would soon force the Bush administration to abandon its open-ended support of the war.
Rumsfeld said he will meet today with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and top U.S. commanders including Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey to “discuss the way forward” in Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow said the meeting was a routine update on the conflict – scheduled weeks ago – and that it did not herald a major change in strategy.
“The biggest mistake would be not to pass things over to the Iraqis,” Rumsfeld said. “It’s their country. They’re going to have to govern it. They’re going to have to provide security for it. And they’re going to have to do it sooner rather than later.”
Attacks and sectarian fighting have flared beyond Baghdad in recent days – from Amarah in the south to the Tigris River town of Balad and the northern city of Mosul – in some cases requiring the urgent intervention of U.S. forces. Sunni insurgents have also been staging bold military displays in cities and towns in the vast western province of Anbar.
The eruption of violence around Iraq comes as thousands of U.S. reinforcement troops are tied down in aggressive operations to secure Baghdad, where attacks have nevertheless surged 43 percent since midsummer in a trend that an American general there this week called “disheartening.”
At least 75 U.S. troops have been killed so far in Iraq this month – the highest daily rate since January 2005. The United Nations has said that more than 100 Iraqis a day are being killed in raging sectarian violence.
U.S. commanders are wrestling with the question of whether to raise troop levels. Last week Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, said more U.S. troops would have an immediate impact on reducing attacks in localities where they operate, but that it was uncertain whether they would contribute to bringing violence down in the long-term.
Casey is working on projections for when the U.S. military can hand over responsibilities to Iraqi forces in different parts of the country, but Rumsfeld said Friday “there’s no doubt” some of the projections will not be met.
Iraqi insurgents and other fighters may well be targeting areas transferred to the control of Iraqi forces, Rumsfeld said. “They’re smart, the enemy,” he added. “They’ve got brains and they use them.”