- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reached out to the troops on Christmas Eve — Mr. Bush by telephone and Mr. Rumsfeld on the ground amid the 140,000 American forces in Iraq.

In Mosul, the site four days ago of the worst mass casualty attack on American forces since the war began in March 2003, Mr. Rumsfeld dismissed “naysayers” and predicted a historic victory.

“People will be able to look back and know that they’ve been involved … in something truly historic, something truly important,” he told soldiers still grieving over the loss of 14 comrades. “There’s no doubt in my mind this is achievable.”

From the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., Mr. Bush telephoned 10 service members, six of whom are deployed in Iraq. The White House did not release the names of those the president called.

“As these members of our armed forces sacrifice to protect our freedom and liberty, the president wanted to express his gratitude for their service and sacrifice and to wish them all a merry Christmas and happy holidays,” White House spokesman Ken Lisaius told reporters.

In Baghdad, the U.S. command announced that Brig Gen. Richard P. Formica will head an investigation into the Mosul bombing.

Last night, a gas tanker truck wired with explosives exploded in a west Baghdad neighborhood, killing one person and wounding 19. The casualties did not include coalition troops.

Mr. Rumsfeld made his surprise appearance at Forward Operating Base Marez, landing in an Air Force C-17 cargo jet yesterday after a secret 13-hour flight from Washington. Marez is the site of Tuesday’s blast. The suicide bomber killed 21 other persons, including 14 American soldiers and four contractors, in a large dining hall during the noon meal.

The blunt-speaking defense chief has been stung by criticism in the press and from Congress that he botched post-war planning.

Critics say he failed to foresee the rise of the insurgency after Saddam Hussein was ousted and did not put enough troops in the country to restore order.

Mr. Rumsfeld, an ex-Navy pilot and retired Reserve officer, expressed optimism that troops would eventually defeat the enemy, made up primarily of foreign terrorists and Saddam loyalists.

He told soldiers: “When it looks bleak, when one worries how it’s going to come out, when one reads and hears the naysayers and doubters who say it can’t be done and that we’re in a quagmire here, the fact is there have always been people throughout every conflict in the history of the world who said it couldn’t be done.”

Mr. Rumsfeld had appeared at a Pentagon press conference Wednesday to vigorously defend his stewardship in the war on terror that has resulted in hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists being killed or captured, historic elections in Afghanistan and in the toppling of Saddam’s harsh Ba’athist regime.

The press session came a day after new questions about force protection arose because the suicide bomber apparently was able to walk into a military mess hall with a bomb strapped to his body. The U.S. command is now doing a complete security review.

“Multi-National Force Iraq (MNF-I) continuously looks at security procedures and considers adjustments based on intelligence information and other indicators,” command spokesman Col. Jerry Renne said in an e-mail message. “Immediately following this attack, MNF-I’s force protection working group convened, reviewed procedures and made recommendations. Let me emphasize, the review and assessment process takes place at all levels: force, corps and at local levels to ensure nothing is overlooked.”

Mr. Rumsfeld hopscotched across Iraq, visiting troops in clinics, chow halls, stores and parade grounds. He also talked about strategy behind closed-doors with his generals.

At the Mosul base, Mr. Rumsfeld visited the 67th Combat Surgical Hospital and presented a Purple Heart medal to Army Sgt. Chris Scott, 29, of Oklahoma City.

He also ate breakfast with troops at the base and conferred with Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the top officer in Mosul. Mr. Rumsfeld then rode in an Army Black Hawk helicopter south to Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown and now headquarters for the 1st Infantry Division. He met with the division commander, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, then flew to Fallujah, site of bloody, house-to-house fighting in November when a Marine-Army task force captured the city from thousands of terrorists. Gen. Batiste told Mr. Rumsfeld he is “comfortable we’re heading in the right direction.”

The defense secretary also met with Marines and their commander, Lt. Gen. John Sattler.

“This is a tough situation here in Iraq,” Mr. Rumsfeld told Marines at a town-hall-type gathering, where he received polite questions and enthusiastic applause.

“It’s dangerous. People are being wounded. People are being killed. … The great sweep of human history is for freedom and you are on the right side of that,” he told the Marines.

He then headed east to Baghdad for strategy talks with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander of multinational forces in Iraq, and with Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer. High on the agenda are preparations for Jan. 30 elections that could decide whether the country makes the transition from police state to democracy.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we are going to succeed,” Mr. al-Yawer said. “Our enemy is ruthless. It’s rootless and ruthless. But we are compassionate and deeply rooted in the Iraqi society and the world.”

U.S. officials say an American victory is dependent on the training and deployment of sufficient Iraqi security forces to fight insurgents after the coalition withdraws. As of Nov. 22, the latest update posted by the State Department, the United States had trained 114,000 Iraqis. The goal is an indigenous security force of 273,000.

“I do not have enough Iraqi boots on the ground,” Gen. Ham told CNN on Thursday. “The development of Iraqi security forces has not been as fast as any of us would have liked.”

This article is based in parts on wire service reports.

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