BAGHDAD, Iraq – Taking a fresh look at postwar Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) met Saturday with senior American commanders and was assured that a recent switch to more aggressive anti-insurgency tactics has begun to pay off.
"It improves — every month it gets better," Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno (search), commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, told Rumsfeld, who nonetheless expressed doubt that the drop in attacks on American troops marked a turning point.
"It's too early to say it's a trend," the defense secretary told reporters after having lunch with soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division (search) at a muddy outpost on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Security was tight for Rumsfeld's visit, which was not announced in advance. He arrived and left aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane and was whisked from Baghdad International Airport to the 82nd Airborne's post in a Black Hawk helicopter with gunners aboard.
He also went for the first time to Kirkuk, the center of Iraq's northern oil fields, and met with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq.
In Baghdad, Rumsfeld met with Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, current president of the Iraqi Governing Council (search), to talk about the November deal to speed up the return of Iraqi sovereignty, a Rumsfeld aide told reporters. The secretary told al-Hakim the Iraqis need to move faster to prepare for assuming full political control next summer and do more to stimulate the economy.
It was Rumsfeld's second trip to Iraq in four months, reflecting the Bush administration's push for faster progress toward improving security and speeding the political transition to Iraqi control, as well as an effort by the Pentagon to improve the morale of American troops.
Odierno and other commanders spoke of the more offensive-minded approach to countering the shadowy resistance forces that made November the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began in March.
The aggressive tactics, which have included the first use of aerial bombing since the fall of Baghdad in April, have made Iraqis who oppose the resistance less fearful of coming forward with tips on the whereabouts of weapons and fighters, Odierno said.
"When we have a successful operation, other Iraqis come out of the woodwork and offer information," he said in a briefing for Rumsfeld on recent operations in his area of responsibility. That includes Kirkuk, east to the Iranian border, and a large portion of the area north and west of Baghdad where anti-American sentiment runs highest.
Odierno told Rumsfeld that only about 5 percent of the homemade bombs set by insurgents detonate because U.S. soldiers are getting better at finding them.
The top commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said in an interview with reporters traveling with Rumsfeld that U.S. intelligence has not established conclusively that fallen Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is directing he insurgency. Sanchez nevertheless said it is believed that Saddam remains in the country.
Looking to the future, Rumsfeld said he was encouraged that the U.S. military is putting more emphasis on fielding an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, designed as a sort of paramilitary force to perform low-level counterinsurgency operations and provide intelligence.
As an adjunct to that force, U.S. commanders are creating an Iraqi counterterror unit.
Rumsfeld said he was impressed with the work of the 82nd Airborne Division in training Iraqi civil defense troops.
"They are volunteering in large numbers," he said. "The work that they are engaged in is dangerous."
As he strolled through the training area, with Sanchez and others in tow, several dozen young Iraqi recruits in street clothes practiced marching in formation. "Left, ... left, left, right left," they sang out at the command of a U.S. drill master.
Rumsfeld said he would like the training effort accelerated so Iraqis can relieve the U.S. military quicker of responsibility for their nation's security.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for security in the Baghdad area, told reporters that in late November his troops attacked four of 10 known cells of insurgents. One, he said, was responsible for the rocket attack on the Al-Rashid Hotel in October that killed a U.S. Army colonel.
The attacks were successful in some respects, he said, but have not ended the problem. They disrupted the cells' ability to attack but did not destroy them, he said.
"Until you grab the leadership and the financers, they do have the ability to replenish themselves" and strike again, Dempsey said.
"Now you might say, `Why didn't you attack all 10, General?' Well, we haven't gotten enough intelligence (information) to penetrate all of them," he said in an interview with reporters.
Sanchez said information collected from Iraqis is becoming more reliable, and he dismissed suggestions that the more aggressive tactics of his troops have created a backlash from ordinary Iraqis who resent the aggression.
"The opposite has been the case," he said. "The people of the country are indeed cooperating with the coalition."
Iraq was Rumsfeld's final stop on a weeklong trip that began in Belgium for NATO talks and took him to the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
An attempted visit to the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, where 1,000 U.S. troops are based, was scratched when poor visibility at the Tashkent airport forced his plane to turn back Friday.