WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has no interest in keeping U.S. military forces in Iraq longer than it takes to stabilize the country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday.
Rumsfeld denied a news report that the United States was planning a long-term military relationship with Iraq that would grant American access to air bases in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.
"It's flat false," he said, adding that the subject had not even been raised with him.
"The likelihood of it seems to me to be so low that it does not surprise me that it's never been discussed in my presence, to my knowledge," he told a Pentagon news conference. "Why do I say it's low? Well, we've got all kinds of options and opportunities in that part of the world to locate forces. It's not like we need a new place. We have plenty of friends" in that area.
Rumsfeld was responding to questions about remarks in Sunday's New York Times attributed to senior administration officials.
U.S. forces control numerous airports and military bases in Iraq, including the international airport on the outskirts of Baghdad, the Rasheed air base in southeastern Baghdad, H-1 airfield in western Iraq, Tallil air base in southern Iraq and Bashur airfield in the north.
The presence of U.S. forces in Arab states is a highly sensitive topic, especially in Saudi Arabia, which permitted U.S. commanders to run the air portion of the Iraq war from a command post at Prince Sultan air base but did not allow U.S. aircraft to launch offensive strikes from Saudi soil.
The United States has kept ground and air forces in Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War, and it also has a military presence in Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which is home to the Navy's 5th Fleet.
Rumsfeld said he could not speculate about a future U.S. military relationship with Iraq because there is no Iraqi government to discuss it with. He did say, however, that the future U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region is going to be considered once the Iraq war is over.
Rumsfeld said he worried that reports of a possible long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq give the mistaken impression to Iraqis that the United States had a hidden agenda for the war.
"Any impression that is left ... that the United States plans some sort of a permanent presence in that country, I think is a signal to the people of that country that's inaccurate and unfortunate, because we don't plan to function as an occupier," he said.
Although no decisions have been made, Rumsfeld said it was possible over the long term that the United States would withdraw some forces from the Persian Gulf region rather than add some in Iraq.
"I would personally say that a friendly Iraq that is not led by a Saddam Hussein would be a reason we could have fewer forces in the region, rather than more. I mean, just logically," he said.
He asserted that because there is sporadic, small-scale fighting still going on in some parts of Iraq, the war is not over and it's too soon to know when it will be safe for U.S. troops to leave.
Appearing with Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers said Marines came under fire at the Mosul airfield in northern Iraq on Monday and returned the fire. One Marine was wounded, he said.
"The attackers escaped and we have no idea who they were," he said.
Myers also offered a different explanation for an incident Saturday in Baghdad in which four U.S. soldiers were wounded when an Iraqi girl handed them an explosive and it blew up. Three of the four soldiers were evacuated for medical treatment, including one whose leg was amputated.
Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade, had said on Saturday that it appeared to be an accident. But Myers said the latest information he saw Monday indicated that the child handed the soldiers "an improvised" explosive device and that her intent was to "do harm to the four soldiers. It wasn't trying to return a piece of ordnance."
"She tried to run away after she handed it, and it went off," Myers said. The girl got away.
Linnington had said the girl handed over an American M-42 "bomblet," a canister-size piece of a cluster bomb.
Myers gave an upbeat assessment of progress on the humanitarian front in Iraq.
He said an Iraqi health official Monday led U.S. forces to three warehouses in Baghdad which contained enough medical supplies to keep all of Baghdad's hospitals stocked for the next six to 12 months.