Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that Sunday’s historic elections in Iraq have ignited a “tipping of support for the government” by Iraqis now more willing to help security forces defeat insurgents.
Mr. Rumsfeld and his top aide, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, also rebutted charges from two prominent Iraq policy critics — Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
Conducting his first press conference since an estimated 8 million Iraqis went to the polls, the main architect of President Bush’s war on terror predicted, “What is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq will one day be seen as historic victories for the war against extremism.”
Mr. Rumsfeld in the past year has refused to judge the battle against the deadly insurgency in Iraq. For example, he has not said whether the enemy is getting weaker.
But yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld took a rhetorical step in that direction. After describing the scenes of Iraqis voting, he said, “That has to cause a tipping of support for the government, whoever is elected, because of the confidence that all of those people have to feel as a result of seeing so many others of the same view.”
He said the “tipping,” plus more Iraqi security forces, means “obviously there’ll be less of a need for coalition forces.” But he gave no timetable for removing any of the 150,000 U.S. service members in Iraq.
He was careful not to pronounce a tipping point for the battle itself. “I expect that level of violence and the insurgency to continue,” he said.
The secretary did say the shift “means that intelligence is going to improve. I think that it means that there will be more people who will be willing to provide information to the Iraq security forces.”
Mr. Rumsfeld appeared in the Pentagon briefing room shortly after Mr. Wolfowitz and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified together before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Despite U.S. press reports to the contrary, Mr. Wolfowitz asserted that the insurgency is not motivated by nationalism. “Our enemy in Iraq is not the Iraqi people,” he said. “It is not a nationalist insurgency. It is an unholy alliance of old terrorists and new terrorists.”
Mr. Rumsfeld took on Mr. Biden without referring to him by name. Mr. Biden has been particularly critical of the defense secretary, advising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her confirmation hearing not to listen to Mr. Rumsfeld. Mr. Biden also said several times that there are only 4,000 trained Iraqi security forces.
Bur Mr. Rumsfeld yesterday showed a picture of Iraqis defending a polling place. He said each of 5,000 polling stations was guarded by two rings of local forces.
“So the people who say there’s only 4,000 Iraqi security forces, they must have done a whale of a job if they covered 5,000 polling places and had two rings around,” he said. “Anyone can say anything they want, but facts are facts.”
The defense chief said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the training mission in Iraq, told him yesterday that the Iraqi security forces number 136,000.
At the Senate hearing, Mr. Kennedy unleashed another attack on Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy. The senator, citing the rising death toll of U.S. service members, has called Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam” and likened American troops to Saddam Hussein’s henchmen.
Yesterday, he asked Mr. Wolfowitz, “We want to know when the Iraqis are going to go out there and shed their blood, as American servicemen, with this amount of training, are willing to shed theirs? ”
The deputy responded that 1,342 Iraqi soldiers and police have died fighting the insurgents. “The level of intimidation is extraordinary,” Mr. Wolfowitz said. “And [the Iraqis] are facing it bravely. They are shedding their blood.”