- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told troops in a surprise trip to the Abu Ghraib prison yesterday that he is “a survivor” who knows better than to take too seriously a score of calls from the press and politicians for his resignation over prisoner-abuse charges.

“I’ve stopped reading the newspapers,” he said to cheers and applause from U.S. soldiers at the detention camp at the epicenter of the scandal that has plagued the Pentagon in recent weeks. “It’s a fact. I’m a survivor.”

Instead, he said, he has been reading Civil War history books that give him perspective on how well the war on terror is going, comparing U.S. losses in Iraq to “horrendous … battles, where a thousand, 2,000, 3,000, were lost in two or three days.”

“We’ll get through this tough period, let there be no question,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “What’s happening here is reported widely in the United States and around the world as not working.”

The defense secretary arrived with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers to give the soldiers stationed here a much-needed pep talk.

Gen. Myers took the time to thank the troops and their families.

“Thank you for your service. Thank your families for their service, too. They serve just like you do. And if it’s difficult — and I imagine everybody in this room has a story,” the general said. “If you’ve got a family back home, what could go wrong did go wrong the day you left. It just happens that way.”

Mr. Rumsfeld praised the U.S.-trained Iraqi police and security forces.

“They are not trained like you are, they’re not equipped like you are, they’re not led like you are, and frankly, they haven’t been brought up like you have,” he said.

“But they’re human beings. They’re getting trained, they’re getting equipped. It’s their country, and they are going to have to take over security for this country and God bless them for having the guts to do it,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers flew by Chinook helicopter to Abu Ghraib from Baghdad, cutting through a thick haze of dust to reach the prison just west of the Iraqi capital.

After rallying the troops, the pair toured the facility, which has been renamed “Camp Redemption” at the suggestion of the Iraqi Governing Council, the general said.

They traveled in an armored bus, weaving slowly over a rutted road through a barbed-wired encampment full of gruff and restless-looking Iraqi prisoners. As the short convoy rolled past, the prisoners in one cellblock followed by foot and with their eyes from behind the fencing.

“There’s a good chance” that the prisoners knew it was the U.S. defense secretary passing by, said Col. David E. Quantock, the commander of the 16th Military Police brigade, which is in charge of detention at the prison. “They’ve got radios in there, there’s a good chance.”

Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers didn’t visit the cellblock where the abuse photos were taken.

Talking with reporters during the tightly guarded flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Kuwait, Mr. Rumsfeld quelled any suspicions about the motivation of his trip.

“If anyone thinks that I’m there to throw water on a fire, they’re wrong,” he said.

The trip’s flight schedule and travel plans were kept secret until the secretary arrived in Baghdad yesterday afternoon, and security was tight during the visit.

He said he was making the trip to meet with commanders and troops on a variety of matters, although the prison-abuse scandal has grabbed headlines as the main story out of the war zone in recent weeks.

Although Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters that his surprise visit was “not an inspection tour,” he also said he and Gen. Myers “care about the detainees’ being treated right.”

“We care about soldiers’ behaving right,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “We care about command systems working, we have an obligation.”

After touching down for a brief meeting in Kuwait City with the Kuwaiti defense officials, Mr. Rumsfeld and his entourage took off in a C-130 transport plane for Baghdad International Airport.

The sudden trip to Iraq came on the heels of what has perhaps been Mr. Rumsfeld’s most difficult week as President Bush’s defense secretary. Critics in Congress and some in the press have called for him to resign over the prisoner-abuse scandal, contending that he was slow to act on the matter.

Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers left Andrews Air Force Base just after 1 p.m. Wednesday after another hours-long round of testimony before Congress about the scandal and whether U.S. forces might have violated the Geneva Conventions in Iraq.

One Defense official, who spoke on background with reporters after taking off from Andrews, said there “is no doubt” that the Geneva Conventions apply in Iraq.

However, Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers stopped short of acknowledging that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were clear violations of the conventions. Mr. Rumsfeld did say that the photographs that have emerged from the scandal portrayed “something over the edge,” and he stressed that the “real problem” was not the photos, but “the actions that have taken place on detainees.”

Asked why he would not say outright that the conventions had been violated, the secretary said, “There haven’t been any convictions … we have to avoid saying things that end up having guilty people (prison guards) released from penalties because of our words.”

Asked what the Defense Department’s reaction would be if a future Iraqi government, or any other country that adheres to the Geneva Conventions, sought to try or punish U.S. soldiers for violating the conventions, Mr. Rumsfeld said: “The United States government is going to take care of the people who end up being convicted of some wrongdoing, and [the issue] will be moot.”

Instead, he wanted to focus on the positive developments in Iraq.

“You don’t read a lot about the fact that the schools are open, the hospitals are open, the clinics are open, that they have got a new dinar [currency], and their dinar has been steady and strong,” the secretary said, adding that Iraqi government ministries, and provincial and city governments are up and running.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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