- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

The main purpose of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s Christmas Eve whirlwind trip through Iraq was to remind service members of support back home and of the tough mission ahead, and wasn’t designed to buck up the secretary’s political support in Washington, his top aide said yesterday.

Mr. Rumsfeld rode an Air Force C-17 cargo jet back to the United States for Christmas Day after visiting more than 1,000 troops at nearly every major base in Iraq and conferring with his top generals.

His critics in Washington accused him of going to Iraq to counter criticism from some lawmakers that he botched postwar strategy.

But Larry Di Rita, his chief spokesman, said the Christmas Eve trip was talked about since Mr. Rumsfeld’s last visit in October and decided upon over Thanksgiving.

Asked if the trip helped his political standing in Washington, Mr. Di Rita said, “He is so focused on making sure that the forces and their families understand all we are doing, and he is a lot less anxious about what the armchair generals all around Washington have to say about it.”

Mr. Rumsfeld’s 140,000-plus troops in Iraq find themselves in a titanic struggle with a deadly cast of insurgents who strike at any time. Their most common weapon is the improvised explosive device hidden on the roadside or in a suicide driver’s car.

But last Tuesday, a shadowy terrorist group, Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for a new style of attack: A suicide bomber dressed in an Iraqi military uniform penetrated a crowded dining hall at Forward Operating Base Marez, near Mosul, detonated an explosives-stuffed vest and killed 18 Americans, including 14 service members.

The U.S. command is now reviewing all security measures, but Mr. Rumsfeld did not focus on that issue during his trip, Mr. Di Rita said. “The commanders themselves know how to handle security,” he said.

Instead, Mr. Rumsfeld, in meeting with Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, talked about accelerating the training of Iraqis and how U.S. forces are moved around the country as violence dictates.

Mr. Rumsfeld made it a point to talk to troops in informal surroundings, such as chow halls, command centers, stores and clinics, as opposed to having them gather in one spot specifically for his talk.

His theme was a pep talk mixed with realism. After more than a year of fighting foreign terrorists and former Saddam Hussein regime figures, the United States is unsure whether the enemy is larger or smaller, weaker or stronger, according to Bush administration officials. In the process, more than 1,300 U.S. servicemen and women have died in action.

“You know better than anybody what you’re up against,” Mr. Rumsfeld said to 1st Cavalry Division soldiers, whose sector includes the violent Baghdad streets. “You’ve seen it up close and personal. We face a determined and a vicious enemy — extremism in a whole variety of forms.”

Of the Mosul carnage, he said, “Once again we’ve seen the truth that terrorists can attack at any time, at any place, using any technique.”

Serving as a messenger for the folks back home, he added, “The American people recognize the importance of your mission, that you’re here for a purpose.”

In addition to Gen. Casey, Mr. Rumsfeld met with Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the overall tactical commander; Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the senior officer in Mosul; and Lt. Gen. John Sattler, who heads the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

“In addition to looking the soldiers in the eyes and thanking them for their service, the secretary also had the chance once again to visit with the warfighting generals, which was notably refreshing after weeks of conjecture by the armchair generals here at home,” Mr. Di Rita said.

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