Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday rejected a senator’s assertion the Iraq war had become a quagmire, but warned Iraq’s government not to delay political developments such as drafting a constitution.
During a tense Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Army Gen. John Abizaid, who as head of Central Command is the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, declined to endorse Vice President Dick Cheney’s assessment that Iraq’s insurgency was in its “last throes.”
Abizaid said the insurgents’ strength had not diminished and that more foreign fighters were coming into Iraq than six months ago. “There’s a lot of work to be done against the insurgency,” Abizaid said, adding, “I’m sure you’ll forgive me from criticizing the vice president.”
Cheney said later in an interview with CNN he was not backing down from his remark. “If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period, the throes of a revolution.”
This war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Rumsfeld. “And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire.”
“Our troops are dying. And there really is no end in sight. And the American people, I believe, deserve leadership worthy of the sacrifices that our fighting forces have made, and they deserve the real facts. And I regret to say that I don’t believe that you have provided either,” Kennedy added.
“Well, that is quite a statement,” Rumsfeld, flanked by top U.S. commanders, responded. “First let me say that there isn’t a person at this table who agrees with you that we’re in a quagmire and that there’s no end in sight.”
“The suggestion by you that people — me or others — are painting a rosy picture is false,” Rumsfeld.
“The fact is from the beginning of this we have recognized that this is a tough business, that it is difficult, that it is dangerous, and that it is not predictable,” Rumsfeld added.
Kennedy asked Rumsfeld, “Isn’t it time for you to resign?”
Rumsfeld noted he twice offered his resignation to President Bush last year during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, and that Bush declined to accept it. “That’s his call,” Rumsfeld added.
Gen. George Casey, who commands the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed the war had not become a quagmire.
Rumsfeld was chastised by the Senate’s senior member, 87-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who objected to what he called the secretary’s “sneer” and disdain toward lawmakers’ questions. “So get off your high horse when you come up here,” Byrd told Rumsfeld, who later testified before a House of Representatives panel.
There have been 1,725 U.S. military deaths in a war that began in March 2003 and 13,074 U.S. troops have been wounded, the Pentagon said. The May death toll of 80 U.S. troops was the highest since January and June’s death count is on pace to match that of May.
Insurgents have escalated a campaign of bombings taking a growing toll on Iraqi civilians, with hundreds killed since the Shi’ite-led government was formed two months ago.
There has been growing discomfort with the Iraq war among some U.S. lawmakers, and support for the war by the American public has dropped in recent opinion surveys. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said declining public support for the war was becoming a chronic problem.
A new Iraqi constitution is due in August and elections for a new government are set for December.
“To the extent there were, for whatever reason, a delay in moving forward with drafting a constitution or a referendum on the constitution or holding the elections, it would retard the entire process,” Rumsfeld said, but he did not identify possible consequences for a delay.
A small bipartisan group of lawmakers last week proposed a resolution calling on the Bush administration to develop a plan by the end of this year to pull out all American troops from Iraq and to begin the withdrawal by Oct. 1, 2006.
Of a deadline, Rumsfeld testified: “It would throw a lifeline to terrorists, who in recent months have suffered significant losses in casualties, been denied havens, and suffered weakened popular support.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said a deadline should not be ruled out.
“The Iraqis have approved a timetable for adopting a constitution: August 15th, with the possibility of one and only one six-month extension,” Levin said.
“The United States needs to tell the Iraqis and the world that if that deadline is not met, we will review our position with all options open, including but not limited to setting a timetable for withdrawal,” Levin said.