WASHINGTON – Turning away from a "vicious and determined enemy" in Iraq is not an option, despite the deadly attack from a homicide bomber on U.S. troops in Mosul, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Wednesday.
Rumsfeld, who has been under immense pressure from Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans, gave no indication that he has been defeated by critics who say he is insensitive to the struggle of American troops in war zones and is unsympathetic to families of soldiers wounded or killed in action.
The defense secretary appeared subdued as he expressed his condolences to the families of the 13 soldiers and five civilians killed Tuesday at the U.S. base in Mosul (search). But he said freedom is at stake in Iraq and can't be surrendered.
"The only alternative to success would be to turn back to darkness, to those who kill and terrorize innocent men, women and children. And that must not happen," Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
"My thoughts and prayers are with those who have been killed and with the wounded and with their families and with all those military and civilian personnel who have volunteered to place themselves at risk in our country's behalf," he said. "We honor them today, just as generations will come to honor their courage and commitment, and we pray for the successful outcome of their important work."
Tuesday's attack in Mosul, the latest in a series of bad news for the defense secretary, appears to have been an "improvised explosive device worn by an attacker," in other words, a "suicide bomber," said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers (search). The official word was coming from the Multi-National Force Iraq, which has been investigating the explosion that killed 22.
Sixty-nine others were wounded in the attack on the Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad. Most of the injured flew on an Air Force C-141 transport plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Wednesday for treatment at nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Of the 22 killed, 13 were U.S. military personnel, five were U.S. civilians and three were Iraqi National Guardsmen. One victim has not yet been identified and could be the homicide bomber.
Rumsfeld, who was criticized last week for not personally signing his name on letters to families informing them of the death of a service member, said he is personally struck by every death.
"When I meet with the wounded, with their families, or with the families of those who have been lost, their grief is something I feel to my core," said Rumsfeld.
"I, and I know others, stay awake at night for concern for those at risk, with hope for their lives, for their success. And I want those who matter most, the men and women in uniform and their families, to know that. And I want them to know that we consider them, the soldiers, the sailors, the airmen, the Marines, to be America's true treasure. And I thank them and I thank their families," he said.
Rumsfeld was said to have personally written his opening statement after ripping up one crafted by a speechwriter. But despite his heartfelt words, he did not suggest that he would alter his approach to completing Iraq's liberation.
"Our forces are deployed for the critical task of fighting [terrorists] there so we don't have to fight them elsewhere. And our troops are making a difference, let there be no doubt," Rumsfeld said. "I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I, or others here, are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and are cared for in every way humanly possible."
Rumsfeld and Myers did not back down from questions about whether the military is equipped to handle attacks against it and what it can do to stop them.
"The way we prevent this is we win," Myers said.
Myers also described ongoing efforts to improve Iraq's infrastructure to prevent insurgents from gaining a foothold among disaffected Iraqis. He said that power is being restored to substations and that water mains are being repaired. He added that the United States and Iraqi officials are determined to hold free and open elections on Jan. 30.
Some critics have suggested that the election can't be held at that time because the polling stations can't be secured from attack. Likewise on Wednesday, U.S. construction firm Contrack pulled out of its $325 million Iraq project because it could not ensure the security of its employees in Iraq.
"Seventeen of the 18 provinces can support elections now at more than 5,500 designated polling centers," Myers said. "The number of polling centers in the one remaining province, Al Anbar, is not yet known."
Rumsfeld, however, tried to temper expectations about the end to violence after the election.
"I think looking for a peaceful Iraq after the elections would be a mistake," he said. "I think our expectations level ought to be realistic about that. These folks have a lot to lose. The extremists and the terrorists ... are going to do everything they can to see that that opportunity they have succeeds and we've got to do everything to see that they fail," he said.
Rumsfeld has faced a barrage of criticism since President Bush asked him to remain in his Cabinet for a second term. Some defenders have likened the criticism to a coordinated attack to see him removed from office.
"Nothing could be more counterproductive to our mission in Iraq — and to the much needed transformation of our military — than a change of leadership at this momentous time," wrote Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a letter to Bush delivered on Tuesday.
"His plain-spoken style might be off-putting to more than a few inside the Beltway, even among some of our colleagues, but Secretary Rumsfeld continues to share the confidence of a Nation grateful for his service in this time of war," the chairmen wrote.
Rumsfeld said he would not falter while troops are in harm's way, despite the ongoing criticism.
"If they can do what they're doing, I can do what I am doing," Rumsfeld said.