WASHINGTON – Iraq will need time to build up forces sufficient to handle a potential threat from its neighbors — specifically Iran — even after Baghdad (search) proves capable of overcoming the insurgency at home, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Sunday.
Both Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, in comments during Sunday talk shows, brushed off concern that Islam could guide Iraq's new government. Cheney said Iraq will shape its own government, and Rumsfeld predicted that choosing a system mirroring that of Iran would be "a terrible mistake."
Rumsfeld said he doesn't believe President Bush's State of the Union (search) declaration that U.S. troops will leave Iraq when the country "is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors, and able to defend itself" means American forces will be there for years to come.
"What he meant was that the Iraqis' internal security forces would be capable of managing the security situation inside the country," Rumsfeld said on a network news show.
"It will take some time after that before they would have the kind of capability to dissuade Iran, for example, if Iran decided to try to conduct a war with them again," Rumsfeld said.
Some religious leaders in Iraq say they want Islam to be a guiding principle of the Iraqi constitution to be written. Cheney urged caution in forecasting what a future Iraqi government might do. He said Iraqis will determine the role of religion in their government as well as its others tenets.
"This is going to be Iraqi, whatever it is. It's not going to be American," Cheney told "Fox News Sunday."
"I don't think, at this stage, that there's anything like justification for hand-wringing or concern on the part of Americans that somehow they're going to produce a result we won't like," the vice president said.
Cheney said the Iranian government was "a religious theocracy that has been a dismal failure, from the standpoint of the rights of individuals." Rumsfeld added that he doubts Iraq will model its government after Iran's Shiite theocracy.
"I think it would just be an enormous mistake for that country to think that it could succeed with all of its opportunity — with its oil, its water, its intelligent population — to deny half of their population, women, to participate fully, I think just would be a terrible mistake," Rumsfeld said on another network news show.
Rumsfeld said no one can know how long it will take to train various forces to secure Iraq internally, dismissing analysts' predictions of at least two years. One of several factors, he told ABC, is the behavior of Iran and Syria and "the extent to which they're going to be unhelpful or helpful."
Syria has not done all it can to ease the insurgency in Iraq, Rumsfeld said, nor has it released millions of dollars in Iraqi assets. "There is no doubt that the Baathists are located in Syria, from Iraq," the secretary told a cable news show.
"Syria has not been helpful" — nor, he added on a network news show has been Iran.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy questioned why Iraqi forces take longer than American troops to train for security duties.
"Why can't they defend their own country?" Kennedy, D-Mass. "How long do we have to have Americans fighting and dying? How long do we have to ask the taxpayers to continue to pay out?"
Kennedy said the administration should set a goal with Iraq for bringing home U.S. troops by 2006.
On issues, Rumsfeld:
—ruled out the possibility of reviving the military draft. "We don't need one. We have the ability to attract and retain the people we need in the military."
—discussing the two resignation letters he wrote Bush at the height of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal last year, said he believed he still could be an effective Pentagon chief but wanted the president to make that call. "I told him I really thought he ought to carefully consider it. But he made a conscious decision, and life goes on, and here we are."
—with speculation heating up about a possible U.S. attack against Iran to derail its nuclear capability, Rumsfeld was asked if there were U.S. military operations going on in the country now. "Not to my knowledge," he replied. Problems with Iran are being handled diplomatically and not through the Defense Department, Rumsfeld said. Asked if the United States can accept a nuclear weapon in Iran, Rumsfeld said, "Those are issues that are for the president. We don't want to get into that."
Cheney, meanwhile, said the United States has done "enormous damage" to al-Qaida but that "the threat's still out there" from the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
As for finding Osama bin Laden, the vice president said, "We're doing our level best and I think eventually we will. But he's very good on his operational security, obviously. He's found good places to hide."