WASHINGTON – With his chorus of critics expanding deeper into Republican ranks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told detractors Thursday to pull back as U.S. and Iraqi officials grapple with the uncertainties of laying out Iraq’s course.
“You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it’s complicated, it’s difficult,” Rumsfeld said, appearing unusually combative as he sparred with reporters at the Pentagon. “Honorable people are working on these things together,” he said, adding emphatically that “no daylight” exists between the American and Iraqi sides.
But with just 12 days before the Nov. 7 elections, criticism of the war appears to be gaining momentum, despite Rumsfeld’s pugnacious defense of the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy. The office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mocked Rumsfeld’s admonition on a day when October’s death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq reached 96, the highest monthly total in a year.
More troubling for President Bush, the cracks in the Republican Party’s support for the war are widening. In recent days, Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky., and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, have called for Rumsfeld’s resignation; Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., and Tennessee’s Republican Senate candidate, Bob Corker, have declared that “stay the course” is not a viable strategy; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has said she would not have authorized the invasion if she knew then what she knows now; and Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., has demanded that the generals – not the White House – draft a plan for withdrawal.
The calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation and criticism of the conduct of the war are “a reflection of just how difficult it has been for Republican candidates to separate themselves from the president and the war,” said Amy Walter, a House analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Bush declared Wednesday that the United States is winning the war in Iraq, but acknowledged that he is not satisfied with the situation and vowed to press Iraqi leaders to do more to stabilize their country on their own.
“Everyone’s trying to make a little mischief out of this, and … turn it into a political football,” Rumsfeld said Thursday of the ongoing talks over goals by the Iraqi leadership, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior U.S. commander in Iraq. He denied reports that Casey sought to increase U.S. troops in the country, and he said a majority of the 310,000 Iraqi security forces are “in the lead” and “bearing the brunt of the battle” in Iraq.
Rumsfeld said setting benchmarks for the newly elected Iraqi government to assume greater control over security and the operation of public institutions did not imply strict deadlines. “You’re looking for some sort of guillotine to come falling down if some date isn’t met. That is not what this is about,” he said.