CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – Operation Iraqi Freedom was such a success, it will influence military spending and policy for years to come, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told American troops on Monday.
Speaking to hundreds of desert camouflage-clad troops at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, Rumsfeld said the military used "an unprecedented combination of power, precision, speed, flexibility, and, I would add, compassion."
"Baghdad was liberated in less than a month, possibly the fastest march on a capital in modern military history," Rumsfeld said.
Though the troops in Qatar (search) were involved in command and logistics, not direct combat, they played a key role, the secretary said.
"You protected our country from a gathering danger and liberated the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld said. Later, he added: "You liberated a country, but how you did it will help transform the way we defend our country in the 21st century."
Rumsfeld is touring the Persian Gulf region this week to thank the troops and discuss the future American military presence with leaders of allied nations. He will meet with Qatar's leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, later Monday.
U.S. war chief Gen. Tommy Franks (search) said Sunday he wants to continue using the high-tech headquarters. U.S. officials are considering moving an American air command center from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia -- a move that could bring the center to the Al Udeid air base near here, which has the necessary facilities and equipment.
Although Rumsfeld said his trip to the region is not a "victory tour," he and Franks were clearly celebrating the coalition's success in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Because of all of you, Iraqis are able to raise their voices in debate without fear of torture or death," Franks told the troops Monday.
But he added: "To be sure, there is a great deal of work yet to be done."
Rumsfeld also took a shot at early critics of the war.
"There were a lot of hand wringers around, weren't there?" a grinning Rumsfeld said in response to a question about commentators second-guessing the war. Rumsfeld said a Washington humorist told him, "Never have so many been so wrong about so much."
The defense secretary also praised Franks for what Rumsfeld called a great plan with "brilliant execution."
Rumsfeld said Turkey's decision to block the Army's 4th Infantry Division from invading northern Iraq from bases in Turkey was "disappointing." He said Franks turned that disappointment into an advantage by having the ships carrying the division's equipment linger off the coast of Turkey.
That move, Rumsfeld said, gave Saddam's regime the idea that the war wouldn't start until the United States could open a northern front. As it happened, the bulk of the American ground force invaded from Kuwait to the south.
After their speeches, Rumsfeld and Franks posed for photographs with troops and autographed their hats.
One of the soldiers in the crowd, Army Pfc. Michael Gaskins of Tallahassee, Fla., said he appreciated Rumsfeld's visit, but thought other troops deserved the thanks more than those at Central Command headquarters.
"There are a lot worse places than here," he said. "I'd rather be home, but this is not bad at all."
Rumsfeld also dodged some questions from the troops after his speech. One asked whether he would consider lowering the retirement age for reservists because they have been activated so often and so long in recent years.
"How can you ask a 70-year-old to lower the retirement age?" Rumsfeld said before moving on to the next question.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.