MOSUL, Iraq – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), on a Christmas Eve mission to cheer up the troops in Iraq, promised them that no matter how bleak things might look at any one moment they will look back on their mission with pride.
"There's no doubt in my mind, this is achievable," he told troops in Mosul just three days after the devastating attack on a U.S. military dining hall here.
"When it looks bleak, when one worries about how it's going to come out, when one reads and hears the naysayers and the doubters who say it can't be done, and that we're in a quagmire here," one should recall that there have been such doubters "throughout every conflict in the history of the world," he told about 200 soldiers of the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division at their commander's headquarters.
Traveling in secrecy amid tight security, Rumsfeld landed in pre-dawn darkness and immediately headed for a combat surgical hospital where many of the bombing victims were treated after Tuesday's lunchtime attack on a mess tent. The most seriously wounded already have been transferred to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.
At a later stop in Tikrit, the hometown of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld met with the commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. John Batiste (search).
Batiste said that 90 percent of the threat in his area, which covers four provinces in northcentral and northeastern Iraq is from former Baathist regime elements.
He told Rumsfeld the groundwork is being laid for successful elections in this part of Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni.
Standing under a bright sun on a brisk morning, Rumsfeld addressed a group of about 250 soldiers gathered outside Batiste's headquarters, thanking them for their service and wishing them holiday greetings.
During his brief stop at the 67th Combat Surgical Hospital in Mosul, the defense chief presented a Purple Heart medal to Sgt. Chris Scott, who was wounded a day earlier. Rumsfeld also thanked the hospital's staff for their work in treating the dozens of wounded from Tuesday's attack at the mess hall, located near the base's airfield.
Out of concern for security, Rumsfeld's aides went to unusual lengths to keep his visit a secret prior to his arrival, with only a few reporters and one TV crew accompanying him on an overnight flight from Washington.
In an interview aboard the C-17 cargo plane that brought him to Mosul, Rumsfeld said he'd been planning to visit U.S. troops here long before Tuesday's deadly attack, believed to have been carried out by a suicide bomber.
The blast Tuesday at Forward Operating Base Marez was the deadliest single attack on a U.S. base in Iraq, striking as hundreds of soldiers sat down to lunch. Fourteen U.S. servicemembers were among the 22 killed.
The top U.S. general in northern Iraq said Thursday that the suicide bomber believed to have blown himself up in the dining tent was probably wearing an Iraqi military uniform. The episode has focused new attention on the ability of the U.S. military to protect its forces.
Security experts said improved screening of visitors and fewer large troop gatherings would help counter insurgents' tactics. Some individual bases have taken steps such as posting guards outside mess tents. Military officials discussed ways to increase security for troops in Iraq but announced no major shifts Thursday.
Rumsfeld's visit to Mosul came as U.S. Marines engaged in the heaviest fighting in weeks in Fallujah, the embattled city west of Baghdad, where U.S. troops waged bloody battles before clearing the city of most militants last month. At least three Marines were killed in combat that underlined how far the city and surrounding area are from being tamed as the United States and its Iraqi allies try to bring quiet before national elections Jan. 30.
In introducing Rumsfeld to his troops at Task Force Olympia headquarters, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham expressed gratitude for what he described as an outpouring of Christmas cards and other expressions of thanks and condolences from people across the United States since Tuesday's attack.
"It has been truly heartwarming," Ham said.
In his prepared remarks to Ham's soldiers, Rumsfeld alluded to Tuesday' attack and said he was inspired by the spirit shown by the wounded. He said he had visited other wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on Wednesday.
"It's amazing, what they say, how they feel about the work that's being done out here," he said.
Rumsfeld's stealth Christmas Eve trip came on the heels of several difficult weeks for the defense chief. Several high-profile Republicans have publicly criticized Rumsfeld, prompting President Bush to defend him Monday as a "good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes."
Speaking for himself on Wednesday, Rumsfeld said he stays awake at night worrying about soldiers and their families and shares their grief over lost loved ones.
Rumsfeld has made several visits to troops in the region, most recently two weeks ago to a forward base in Kuwait. There, a handful of soldiers openly challenged him about inadequate equipment and long deployments.
He faced another firestorm earlier this week because he was not personally signing condolence letters to the families of dead soldiers, as the president does. Critics fault him for poor postwar planning and for a steadily growing list of problems, from failure to strangle the insurgency to prisoner abuses in Iraq and Guantanamo.
Rumsfeld was popular following during the successful military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, but postwar problems in Iraq have soured his standing with Americans. Half now say he should resign even though the president just signed him on for his second-term cabinet.