- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday defended his Pentagon tenure on a day when the carnage at a U.S. base near Mosul, Iraq, brought new questions about how well American troops are protected in Iraq.

“Freedom is at stake in Iraq, and it’s achievable,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “The only alternative to success would be to turn back to darkness — to those who kill and terrorize innocent men, women and children. And that must not happen.”

A U.S.-led coalition already has brought the first democratically elected government to Afghanistan — once a haven for al Qaeda under the oppressive Taliban regime — and Mr. Rumsfeld declared, “I have never been prouder to be an American.”

It was Mr. Rumsfeld’s first appearance in the Pentagon press room since Nov. 23 and since a flurry of criticism from the press and some members of Congress over the situation in Iraq. President Bush, who has asked the defense secretary to stay on in his second term, strongly endorsed him earlier this week.

Mr. Rumsfeld yesterday avoided the blunt and sometimes tart replies to reporters for which he has been known, as he and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to explain the administration’s Iraq policy as part of the post-September 11 war on terror.

“Coalition forces continue to pursue terrorists across the world,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “Thus far, more than three-quarters of al Qaeda key members and associates have been captured or killed since the war on extremism began. … Here at the Pentagon, we’re continuing to make progress in transforming for the post-Cold War period.”

Iraq, he said, is part of a broader strategy to bring freedom to a region that in the past has been “condemned to tyranny and violence,” where those “with little hope for a better future” provided terrorist groups “a deep pool from which to draw recruits and to attack free people across the globe.”

Mr. Rumsfeld addressed criticism that the Pentagon was slow to add armor to utility vehicles and trucks after Iraqi rebels began targeting them with improvised explosive devices.

“I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I or others here are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and are cared for in every way humanly possible,” he said.

Pentagon officials said yesterday a suicide bomber apparently being able to carry an explosive device into a main U.S. base raises serious questions about security procedures in Iraq. They said the command needs to do a complete review, not only for Forward Operating Base Marez, near Mosul, but also other facilities in Iraq that rely on local workers.

Asked what could be done to prevent a similar attack, Mr. Rumsfeld answered, “It is an enormous challenge to provide force protection, something that our forces worry about, work on constantly.”

Both Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers said Iraq’s election would go ahead as scheduled on Jan. 30, saying suitable polling places had been found in all provinces except Anbar, home of Fallujah and Ramadi, centers of insurgency.

“They’re going to do everything they can to see that that opportunity they have succeeds,” Mr. Rumsfeld said of the enemy. “And we’ve got to do everything to see that they fail.”

Gen. Myers then fielded a question on whether Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia in Mosul, had been wise to allow hundreds of soldiers to congregate in a large mess tent where the attacker struck.

“Any judgment that Gen. Ham is up there and not worried about force protection is lubricious,” Gen. Myers said. “We know how difficult this is, to prevent suicide, people bent on suicide and stopping them. … This was the insurgents that did this. It’s not Gen. Ham that attacked his dining hall. I think he has a very good plan for force protection.”

Soldiers in Iraq say a new dining hall was being built in Mosul, although it would offer no protection against a suicide bomber. After a soldier on the base was killed by a mortar round near the hall last summer, commanders required diners to wear protective gear.

“Think about turning that country over and letting them win, those people who are doing those things,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “It would be a terrible loss for civilized society.”

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