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Iraq: Rumsfeld Defends Reconstruction Progress

  • Andrew Tully

Senior U.S. government officials continue to face tough questioning about the situation in Iraq. On 9 September, U.S. senators demanded fuller details about U.S. plans for the occupation. And yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld, the man who heads the Pentagon, answered questions about the pace of progress following a speech in Washington. Rumsfeld suggested that concerns about the occupation are generated more by impatience than by any systemic trouble in Iraq.

Washington, 11 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday mounted a spirited defense of his country's occupation of Iraq, saying it is developing free and independent institutions far more quickly than Germany and Japan did after World War II and, more recently, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Rumsfeld presented his case during a speech and question-and-answer session at the National Press Club in Washington. Rumsfeld's remarks came one day after his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and the senior U.S. military commander, General Richard Myers, came under tough questioning before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senators -- many of them Democrats opposed to President George W. Bush's Republican Party administration -- said the occupation is becoming increasingly bloody and expensive, with no end in sight. Earlier this week, Bush said he needs an additional $87 billion this year for Iraq.

Even a Republican, Senator John McCain of the southwestern state of Arizona, expressed impatience after learning how long it might take for foreign troops to relieve U.S. forces in Iraq under a UN mandate being sought by Bush.

In yesterday's speech, Rumsfeld said the news from Iraq implies that American and other coalition forces are constantly facing attacks from guerrillas believed to be foreign fighters and remnants of the Ba'ath Party regime of deposed President Saddam Hussein. Sixty-nine U.S. troops have been killed by hostile attacks in Iraq since Bush declared the end of major combat operations on 1 May.

Rumsfeld said the vast majority of soldiers are spending their time on more peaceful chores, such as repairing hospitals, clearing soccer fields, giving medical assistance, and training local peace officers.

The secretary acknowledged that the U.S. military and civilian authorities in Iraq face tasks that they did not anticipate, such as providing reliable electrical and water service. But he said this is not a result of poor planning but mismanagement of the country's infrastructure while Hussein was its president.

"I don't think the [U.S. planning] people really fully understood how devastating that regime was to the infrastructure of the country, how fragile the electric system is, how poorly the water's being managed, and the extent to which the people are being denied. On the other hand, so many of the things that could have gone wrong didn't. There was not a humanitarian disaster. They did not open the dams and flood the areas as they did in the south [of Iraq]. We prevented the oil wells from the environmental disaster that could have been caused," Rumsfeld said.

In the meantime, Rumsfeld said, Iraq already has an independent central bank, a new cabinet, and 55,000 indigenous security officers. He noted that after World War II, Germany took many more months -- even years -- to get the same results that Iraq now has, just five months after Hussein's ouster.

Rumsfeld said the world may be more impatient about progress in Iraq because of what he called the "24-hour news cycle," which he said provides people with so much information that any progress appears incremental. But he says the pace of progress in Iraq is actually much quicker than it was in postwar Germany, as well as in Japan and, more recently, in the Balkans.

"It is going to be a tough job, but it's a job well worth doing, and our folks, in my view, are hard at it, doing a good job and proceeding purposefully, and I would say proceeding at a pace that very likely is faster than happened in Japan, faster than happened in Germany, faster than happened in Bosnia, faster than happened in Kosovo," Rumsfeld said.

Like Wolfowitz and Myers, Rumsfeld also was asked about the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. The secretary replied that some people assume that doubling or even tripling the U.S. military presence, which now stands at about 140,000 personnel, would improve the situation in the country. Rumsfeld said that in the case of Iraq, more is definitely not better.

"Our goal is not to create a dependency in Iraq by flooding it with Americans. Our goal is to get a still broader international face on it and then a considerably greater Iraqi face on it as [Iraqis] contribute more and more to their own political future and their own economic future," Rumsfeld said.

The problem with occupied Iraq is not the coalition military presence, but that the occupation was conceived and is being run by the Pentagon and not by the State Department, according to Judith Kipper, the director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research center with offices in Washington and New York.

Kipper says that postwar policy normally is the province of the State Department, but that in the case of post-Hussein Iraq, Bush decided to give that responsibility to the Pentagon. She says that before the war, the State Department had researched how to operate in an occupied Iraq, but that the Defense Department ignored that work:

"The Pentagon was given the authority to be in charge of postwar planning. There are deep strains built into the system between the State Department and the Defense Department. And in this administration, there's not only the normal strains, but there's a deep ideological difference. So the Pentagon said, 'We'll do it by ourselves, we know better,' " Kipper says.

Kipper calls it a "human tragedy" that the task of planning for the occupation of Iraq was not given to those who were more familiar with the culture and attitudes of its people. She says it is still not too late to salvage the job, but adds that time may be running out.

"You can always salvage it, but every day, it's increasingly difficult. And in order to do what is necessary at the United Nations, the U.S. is going to have to [make compromises], and probably there's going to be a little groveling involved here. And there will have to be real sharing of power because the diplomatic failure of the administration and the rush to war is very costly," Kipper says.

Rumsfeld's speech, meanwhile, was interrupted briefly by two young women who heckled him from a balcony overlooking the podium. They displayed a banner reading "Bloody Hands" and chanted slogans, including: "Hey Rumsfeld, what do you say? How many troops did you kill today? Hey Rumsfeld, what do you say? How many troops did you kill today?"

The protesters were escorted from the room. Afterward, Rumsfeld commented to his audience that he applauds free speech. He noted that since the overthrow of Hussein, more than 100 independent newspapers have begun publishing in Iraq.

Since the war in Iraq began in late March, 287 U.S. troops have been killed in combat or by accidents. In the latest casualty, a U.S. soldier was killed yesterday by a homemade bomb that exploded during an attempt to detonate it safely.

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