NEW YORK – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) said Monday he does not expect civil war in Iraq and pointed to the recent retaking of the former insurgent stronghold of Samarra as evidence of progress in stabilizing the country before elections in January.
"I don't think it's going to happen," Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations when asked about the threat of civil war. "But what has to be done in that country is what basically was done in Samarra over the last 48 hours."
Rumsfeld credited a process of first trying diplomacy, then threatening force and finally using it.
"That's what happened in Samarra," he said, referring to the city that coalition and Iraqi forces had chosen as the first target of at least four strongholds of resistance. Fallujah (search), Ramadi and the Sadr City section of Baghdad also are believed to be on the target list.
On whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war, Rumsfeld said flatly Monday that intelligence about such weapons before the invasion was faulty — a markedly different statement than what he told a television interviewer just a day earlier.
"It turns out that we have not found weapons of mass destruction," Rumsfeld said Monday in the speech to the foreign affairs group. "Why the intelligence proved wrong I'm not in a position to say, but the world is a lot better off with Saddam Hussein (search) in jail."
In an interview aired Sunday on the Fox News Channel, Rumsfeld had said he believed Saddam, the deposed Iraqi president, had weapons of mass destruction before the war, and the truth may unfold over months or years.
"I believe they were there, and I'm surprised we have not found them yet," Rumsfeld said in the Fox interview. "He has either hidden them so well or moved them somewhere else, or decided to destroy them ... in event of a conflict but kept the capability of developing them rapidly."
In Monday's speech, Rumsfeld said President Bush had taken the position that "it was unwise for the civilized world to allow Iraq to continue rejecting" U.N. resolutions demanding that Saddam's "vicious regime," which previously had used weapons of mass destruction on its own people, to give them up.
"It was important to set that right by removing that regime before they could gather weapons of mass destruction for themselves or transfer them to terrorists," he said. "That was his view ... and that's what the United Nations voted on."
Rumsfeld said "everyone believed" Saddam had the weapons before the war. "Even the people at the U.N. who voted the other way acknowledged the fact that he had filed a fraudulent declaration," he said.
Asked to describe the connection between Saddam and the Al Qaeda (search) terror network, the Pentagon chief first refused to answer, then said: "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."
Several hours after his appearance, Rumsfeld issued a statement from the Pentagon saying his comment on Al Qaeda and Saddam "regrettably was misunderstood" by some. He said he has acknowledged since September 2002 that there were ties between Usama bin Laden's terror group and Iraq.
"This assessment was based upon points provided to me by then-CIA Director George Tenet (search) to describe the CIA's understanding of the Al Qaeda relationship," he said. This included "solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of Al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad," he said.
In his New York remarks, Rumsfeld said he had seen intelligence on the Saddam-Al Qaeda question "migrate in amazing ways" in the past year, adding that there were "many differences of opinion in the intelligence community." He did not elaborate on that but said relationships among terrorists "evolve and change over time."
In response to other questions, Rumsfeld said Iran was engaged in "a lot of meddling" in Iraq, and Syria has been "notably unhelpful" by refusing to release frozen Iraqi assets and by allowing foreign terrorist movements across its border with Iraq.
He said talks were in progress with Syria, "but it's too early to say there's been any progress at all."