After listening to two U.S. Army officers describe recent progress in battling the insurgency and stabilizing northern Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) swung his chair around and faced four senior Iraqi commanders who had sat silently through the briefing.

For them he had a simple message, one that says much about the state of affairs in Iraq nearly four months after the Americans gave the Iraqis political control and three months before their elections.

"Sovereignty without the ability to protect it isn't sovereignty," he said. Iraqis must take the seeds of security that the U.S. military has planted, he said, and grow their own political and economic system.

"We can help, but we can't do it. You have to do it."

The question that was left unanswered, amid the continued violence of a brutal insurgency, is how long it will take to achieve sufficient security in Iraq to break its dependence on U.S. troops and treasure.

In 12 hours of travel Sunday from a dusty air base in Iraq's western desert, to the protective zone in Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy and the interim Iraqi government are preparing for January elections, to the provincial capital of Kirkuk (search) in the north, Rumsfeld saw evidence that the Iraqis are on the right track. On the other hand he witnessed little to indicate they will reach their goal soon.

"It won't be easy and it won't be smooth," he told several hundred South Koreans over dinner at their new outpost on the outskirts of Irbil, west of Kirkuk, the final stop on his whirlwind tour.

The South Koreans, with 2,800 troops in Irbil and an additional 900 coming soon, have an assortment of mostly support troops, including engineers, medical and communications specialists, and civil affairs officers. They also serve a symbolic importance as the newest non-U.S. contributor of forces to a cause in Iraq that many bigger countries have chosen not to join.

In his speech to the South Koreans, Rumsfeld likened their willingness to come half way around the world to help the Iraqis build a democracy to the United States' willingness to take up arms in defense of South Korea 54 years ago when it was invaded by the communist North Koreans.

The enemy has changed, he said, but the stakes are similar.

"A free and secure Iraq will be important to the struggle against extremism all across the globe," he told the South Koreans, who treated the American defense chief like a rock star, cheering wildly at his entrance. They let loose a cheer that was easily the most vigorous he received on a day in which he also met with more than 1,000 Marines at Al Asad air base (search) in the western desert.

He told the Marines the United States may be able to reduce its troop levels in Iraq after the January elections if security improves and local forces continue to expand and become more effective.

"Our hope is that as we build up Iraqi forces, we will be able to relieve the stress on our forces and see a reduction in coalition forces over some period of time, probably post-Iraqi elections," the Pentagon chief said. "But again, it will depend entirely on the security situation here in this country."

In Kirkuk, Rumsfeld received a briefing by the top U.S. commander in the area, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, on the retaking of Samarra earlier this month. Samarra had fallen under the control of the insurgents and was identified as one of at least 20 cities and towns that the interim Iraqi government wants to regain before the January elections.

Batiste praised the work of several Iraqi National Guard battalions that joined in the Samarra offensive. He said a combined U.S.-Iraqi force of up to 5,000 troops had quickly defeated an enemy that included about 300 "dedicated fighters," about 50 foreign fighters from Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere, and hundreds of "opportunists" whom he believed were former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime who were out of work and willing to fight as mercenaries.

Rumsfeld also heard Col. Lloyd Miles, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade paint an upbeat picture of conditions through Kirkuk province, best known as a major oil producing region. Miles said attacks against coalition forces had declined over the past two months.

On Sunday morning, Rumsfeld flew unannounced and under heavy security to Al Asad, home of the 3rd Marine Air Wing, from Bahrain, where he had spent Saturday night after meeting aboard an aircraft carrier in the central Persian Gulf with Iraq's interim defense ministers and the defense chiefs of 17 other countries that support the U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld ended his day in Skopje, Macedonia, where he was meeting with government officials on Monday before heading to Romania for a NATO defense ministers meeting.