WASHINGTON – The top American military commander in the Persian Gulf (search) disputed a contention by Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes" and told Congress on Thursday its strength was basically undiminished from six months ago.
Furthermore, Gen. John Abizaid (search) told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago."
His testimony came as the nation's top defense leaders rejected calls by some lawmakers for the Bush administration to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. "That would be a mistake," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) told the committee.
In a televised interview last month, Cheney said: "The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's senior Democrat, asked Abizaid if he realized he was contradicting Cheney.
"I don't know that I would make any comment about that other than to say there's a lot of work to be done," said Abizaid. "I gave you my opinion."
Levin and other congressional Democrats — and some Republicans as well — have criticized administration officials for painting an unrealistically rosy picture of the situation in Iraq.
For his part, Rumsfeld sought to explain what Cheney meant.
Between now and when an Iraqi constitution is drafted and voted on later this year, "They may very well be in their last throes by their own view cause they recognize how important it will be if the lose," he said.
Of Cheney's words specifically, Rumsfeld added: "While I didn't use them and I might not use them, I think it's understandable that we can expect that kind of a response from the enemy."
Rumsfeld engaged in contentious exchanges with committee Democrats.
"Isn't it time for you to resign?" Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., asked the defense secretary, citing what he called "gross errors and mistakes" in the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.
"I've offered my resignation to the president twice," Rumsfeld shot back, saying that President Bush had decided not to accept it. "That's his call," he said.