BAGHDAD, Iraq – In his Christmas Eve encounters with U.S. military commanders and hundreds of their troops, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) heard — and said — little about armor or troop shortages, issues that have made him a political target in Washington among both Democrats and Republicans.
His main message over a four-city tour was quite different: that the insurgency has staying power and a seemingly endless supply of weapons, and the time has come for ordinary Iraqis to realize that they — not the Americans — will ultimately decide who prevails in this conflict.
During a visit to U.S. troops in Kuwait (search) earlier this month, Rumsfeld was challenged by several soldiers on issues like lack of vehicle armor, pay and troop deployments. Some saw his responses as callous, triggering calls by some in Congress for him to resign, just days after President Bush had decided he wanted the 72-year-old Rumsfeld to stay for a second term at the Pentagon.
On his Iraq trip, Rumsfeld faced no such challenges. Instead, he emphasized his personal support and understanding of the sacrifices troops make, especially around the holidays.
"You face a determined and vicious enemy," Rumsfeld said in dinner remarks Friday to hundreds of 1st Cavalry Division soldiers at a post near the Baghdad International Airport, where they feasted on a holiday meal of prime rib, fried shrimp and chicken, mashed potatoes and all the fixings.
Underscoring Rumsfeld's point, just hours after he left, the death toll grew as a homicide bomber blew up a gas tanker in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad, home to many foreign missions as well as top Iraqi government officials.
During his visit, Rumsfeld said it would be unrealistic to predict that the level of violence will recede once the Jan. 30 elections are held. In the end, he said, it will be a "uniquely Iraqi solution," not American.
Earlier in Fallujah, the restive city that had been the insurgents' main haven until U.S. forces overran it last month — and are still rooting out holdout fighters — Rumsfeld used a simple analogy to explain his view that the time is arriving for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security.
Faced with a chore like digging a ditch, a typical American, he said, will grab a shovel and start digging. In Iraq now, however, the task is to step aside and get the Iraqis to dig their own ditches.
He warned against allowing the Iraqis to become too dependent on the U.S. military. More independence is what's needed, he said.
"That's the only way," Rumsfeld said during a meeting with top U.S. commanders in Tikrit, at the northern tip of the so-called Sunni Triangle that had been deposed President Saddam Hussein's bedrock of support. He called it the key to eventually getting the 151,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq.
In that meeting, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the senior ground commander in Iraq, made a similar point. He said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, whose 1st Infantry Division essentially rules north-central and northeastern Iraq, and who was sitting in the same meeting, must stop thinking of that as his area of responsibility and instead get local Iraqi commanders to take it as their own.
Batitiste agreed and said that within six months he expects an Iraqi National Guard division headquarters, with 15 battalions of guardsmen, to be ready to take control of his area. There already are 11 battalions in place, he said.
"We're on the verge of something great here," Batiste said.
In his session with Metz and Batiste, Rumsfeld pointedly noted that some in Washington keep saying that American commanders in Iraq feel they need more troops, or that they're not getting the resources they need. He asked Metz: What has Batiste told you he needs that he has not received?
Metz made no mention of troop levels, but he said Batiste could use more specialized drone aircraft used for surveillance and reconnaissance, and that he needs more linguists because many of them have succumbed to the tactics of intimidation used by insurgents.
Batiste described intimidation as a highly effective tool of the insurgents, and he estimated that 90 percent of the insurgent violence is directed by former loyalists to Saddam Hussein. He said death threats are delivered to the mail boxes of Iraqis who cooperate with the Americans or are otherwise circulated in ways that make it difficult to maintain Iraqi loyalty in the face of threats to their families. He showed Rumsfeld a photograph of what he called a hand-written death threat that was among weapons and other materials recovered during a raid Thursday night.