- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

At his Christmas Party on Saturday night, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had a secret.

His regional commander, Gen. John Abizaid, had told him that afternoon that he was convinced his troops had captured Saddam Hussein. But Mr. Rumsfeld was not totally convinced. He had announced the death of Ali Hassan al Majid, the notorious “Chemical Ali,” during the war, only to find out that he was still alive.

Besides, he and President Bush had decided the announcement, if confirmed, would come out of Baghdad, not Washington.

So, with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner and other lawmakers in his home, Mr. Rumsfeld decided to stay mum.

On Sunday morning, before the announcement, Mr. Rumsfeld’s office began to telephone senior members of Congress to let them know of the capture.

Yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld telephoned Mr. Warner, Virginia Republican, to explain why he had kept the senators in the dark. The two have not always seen eye to eye on defense issues. But on this occasion, Mr. Warner expressed understanding.

In addition to eyewitness identification, the piece of evidence that finally convinced Mr. Rumsfeld was the money: Why would a Saddam double be hiding with nearly $1 million in cash?

The capture promises to restore Mr. Rumsfeld’s status as the ultimate wartime leader, after months of being pummeled by the Washington press corps.

Some liberal Democrats have accused him of botching plans for post-Saddam Iraq. Time magazine asked in November, “Is Rumsfeld Losing His Mojo?” Republican lawmakers seemed to keep their distance, rather than dive in to rescue Mr. Bush’s secretary of war. One newspaper reported this summer that Mr. Bush has decided to fire Mr. Rumsfeld — a story the administration calls ridiculous.

“I think it’s a boost to him,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee member. “Rumsfeld is doing a great job. In the course of conducting a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s also continued to transform our military in fundamental ways. I think few can disagree with him. I’m sure in the course of that some people get their feelings hurt. But fundamentally I believe he’s an extraordinary leader.”

The TV images of a subdued and bewildered Saddam is just what Mr. Rumsfeld needed: a clear cut achievement to soothe the wounds of a deadly eight-month occupation.

For months, he has taken the brunt of criticism for a post-Saddam war strategy that failed to predict a robust Iraq insurgency. What’s more, he refused to accept his critics’ premise that he had too few troops in Iraq, and too few on active duty overall.

Suddenly, the arrogance and resoluteness that had won over so many fans during the war in Afghanistan did not play as well as Iraqi guerrillas took more lives.

Time magazine, in explaining its lost mojo angle, wrote that Mr. Rumsfeld’s pronouncements “have grown into a regular political distraction for a president who is already on the defensive.”

That same week, a few liberal Democrats, including Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign.

“It’s time that he does the American people a service by resigning,” the congressman said. “He has no plan.”

Mr. Rumsfeld’s advisers said that throughout the criticism the secretary appeared unfazed and focused.

“I don’t think he’s particularly wounded by criticism,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, a member of the Defense Policy Board that advises the secretary. “He doesn’t seem to have mood swings.”

Gen. Horner and other board members dined at Mr. Rumsfeld’s home last month and found him in good spirits.

Mr. Rumsfeld also continues to feel heat from senior retired Army officers who believe he is pushing radical plans for the nation’s largest land force.

“The diehard Army guys are still going to be mad at him,” Gen. Horner said. “The thing I like about him is he allows the services to lead if they are willing to lead. If they don’t, then he has to jab them all the time. The Army’s problem is instead of trying to think about a new army, they’re focused on selling an old Army based on numbers of people.”

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