WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged Monday that the insurgency in Iraq has been stronger than anticipated. But he also said the news media have focused on the war's growing body count rather than progress that has been achieved.
"To be responsible, one needs to stop defining success in Iraq as the absence of terrorist attacks," Rumsfeld said in remarks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He added, "It's appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed -- and may God bless them and their families -- but what they died for or, more accurately, what they lived for."
Continuing recent Bush administration efforts to defend war policies, Rumsfeld said Americans should be optimistic about progress that has been made politically and militarily in Iraq, as that country prepares for next week's parliamentary election.
In a change of focus, Rumsfeld also aimed some of his remarks at the media for presenting a "jarring contrast between what the American people are reading and hearing about Iraq and the views of the Iraqi people."
The Iraqis, he said, are more upbeat about their country, their security forces are growing, and they are on the road to democracy.
Rumsfeld's speech came five days after President Bush released a strategy for victory in Iraq that was meant to better explain the U.S. mission there.
It also came amid increasing discontent with the war among some members of Congress. In addition, more than half of Americans now say it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, according to recent polls. Bush's approval on handling Iraq is at 37 percent, the lowest yet.
Pressure on the administration has grown as the number of U.S. military deaths has surpassed 2,100. Rumsfeld said focusing on that number would be as misleading as concentrating on the large numbers of casualties at battles like Iwo Jima during World War II -- without acknowledging the victories eventually achieved.
He denounced as unsubstantiated recent reports out of Iraq, including allegations from two former Iraqi detainees who said they were thrust into a cage of lions in Baghdad and then pulled out as an interrogation technique.
Rumsfeld also questioned stories about a military propaganda program that secretly paid Iraqi newspapers and journalists to publish favorable articles about the war and rebuilding in Iraq. He said he didn't know if the allegations were true, and questioned whether a contractor properly implemented military policy, which was supposed to require the articles to be labeled as ads or opinion pieces.
U.S. military leaders in Iraq confirmed the existence of the propaganda program last week.
Rumsfeld said there were "intense discussions" within The Associated Press about whether its Iraq coverage had been fair or slanted. Kathleen Carroll, executive editor, said later that Associated Press editors "engage in conversations all the time with newspapers and broadcast outlets we serve on a lot of topics including Iraq, about whether our coverage is comprehensive and useful to readers."
"It's a classic case of blaming the messenger," said Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog group in New York. "When the news is bad, blame the journalists for ignoring the good news. Rumsfeld is confusing bias with bad news. Reporting bad news is not bias."
Rumsfeld acknowledged that the war has not gone according to plan, but said many things that were feared -- including destruction of oil fields -- have not happened.
He said the insurgency was larger than some had expected, and early efforts to counter it were hampered when infantry units were not allowed to go into northern Iraq through Turkey.
From Bush's declaration of an end of major combat in May 2003 to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion in May 2005 that the insurgency was "in the last throes," the administration has taken a positive stance. But the deadly groups -- including Sunni extremists and foreign terrorists coming across the borders -- have continued to kill U.S. and Iraqi forces.
In one indication of the continuing problems, the Pentagon Monday tapped a senior retired general to take over a special task force to counter the devastating roadside bombs that kill coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.
Rumsfeld named Ret. Army Gen. Montgomery Meigs, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, to head the program, which will expand on efforts to find solutions through new technology, better training and improved battlefield tactics.
Bush and Rumsfeld have insisted that withdrawal from Iraq will be based on conditions there, and that pulling out too soon would only bring victory to the insurgents and put the U.S. at greater risk.
The administration has said Iraqi security forces are growing -- one of the prerequisites to drawing down U.S. troops. But in an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said the training of Iraqi forces has been troubled in recent months because some security units are being used to go after political rivals.
Some Democrats renewed calls for Rumsfeld to be removed from his post.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said U.S. troops "have been put in greater danger by the mistakes of this secretary of defense who refuses to tell the truth about what is happening in Iraq and pushes aside anyone who dares speak truth to power."