WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to predict on Thursday when U.S. forces would be out of Iraq, a decision President Bush has said would be up to a future U.S. president and a future Iraqi government.
"I've avoided predicting the timing," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
He suggested he didn't want to make the same mistake made nearly a decade ago when U.S. officials suggested that U.S. troops would be out of Bosnia within a year. Troops remain there today, although only a couple of hundred in number and no longer as the lead force.
"The level of the forces in Iraq will depend on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of the commanders," Rumsfeld said. He added that he had not yet received a recommendation from Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, on whether or when to reduce the size of the force.
He said he still anticipated a drawdown of U.S. troops this year "because we think the government will be formed, it will meet with reasonable acceptance," and Iraqi security forces will perform well.
There are now about 133,000 American troops in Iraq. Military officials have expressed hope they can reduce the number below 100,000 by year's end.
Rumsfeld also said the fact that a unity government has not yet been formed was "unhelpful" to the goal of ending violence and achieving stability in Iraq.
"There's no question but that the terrorists are trying to prevent the establishment of the government, that's obvious," Rumsfeld said. "Have they delayed it? Probably. They probably have. And is that harmful? Yes."
"The inevitable effect of that is that some of the violence and incidents that are occurring might have ended earlier had they been able to fashion a government at an earlier time," Rumsfeld said.
Three days after Bush rejected calls for Rumsfeld's resignation, the defense secretary said he remains "hard at the job, working hard, getting up every day and thinking what can we do for the troops. ..."
As to calls for him to step down, Rumsfeld said, "Those kinds of calls have been going on for five-plus years. The president has asked me not to get involved in politics, and that's politics."
Rumsfeld said he still hasn't decided what he will do about Pentagon policies at the heart of a controversy over the U.S. military's practice in Iraq of paying the Iraqi media to place favorable stories in their newspapers.
"I'm not going to make a judgment off the top of my head," he said.
Rumsfeld announced that he would travel Monday to the site, near Shanksville, Pa., where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field on Sept. 11, 2001, killing all 40 passengers and crew aboard. The Sept. 11 Commission report said the hijackers crashed the plane as passengers tried to take control of the cockpit.