Washington, 23 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. defense officials have defended efforts to stabilize Iraq amid growing domestic concerns about the purpose of the military campaign there.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top U.S. military leaders testified before a U.S. Senate panel today at a time of calls for more clarity about policy in Iraq. Some legislators from both major U.S. political parties are calling for an exit strategy with a deadline for a withdrawal.
Rumsfeld said this would be a mistake. "Let there be no doubt. If the coalition were to leave before the Iraqi security forces are able to assume responsibility, we would one day have to confront another Iraqi regime perhaps even more dangerous than the last in a region plunged into darkness rather than liberated and free," he said.
The defense secretary said setting a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal would provide a boost to the insurgency. He also said Iraqi forces increasingly have better equipment, training and motivation and are conducting more extensive operations against insurgents.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, and other top officers expressed concern about extremists flowing across Iraq's borders to join the insurgency. They said there is an organizational structure in Syria that is facilitating the flow of insurgents but could not confirm whether the Syrian government was involved.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, said there has been an influx of suicide bombers from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Despite intensified counter-insurgency efforts, he said, the fighters remain strong.
"In terms of comparison from six months ago, in terms of foreign fighters, I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago. In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency I'd say it's about the same as it was," Abizaid said.
Those comments appeared to clash with remarks from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney last month that the insurgency was in its "last throes." Cheney reaffirmed his position in an interview with CNN on today. He said the conflict can still be intense in its final moments and suggested Iraqi insurgents were desperate stop Iraq's democratization from succeeding.
Most senators on the panel opposed a U.S. pullout of forces from Iraq. But the panel's top Democrat, Senator Carl Levin, said the U.S. administration must press Iraqi leaders. He said they must meet their key political deadlines or face a possible U.S. timetable for withdrawal.
Senator Edward Kennedy sharply criticized the U.S. defense secretary, saying Rumsfeld has consistently misled the U.S. public about the nature of the Iraqi war. He repeated his call for Rumsfeld to resign.
"You basically have mismanaged the war and created an impossible situation for military recruiters and put our forces and national security in danger," Kennedy said. "Our troops deserve better and American people deserve better. They deserve competency and they deserve the facts."
Rumsfeld said he has offered his resignation twice to President George W. Bush, who declined to accept. Rumsfeld also rejected the suggestion that he misrepresented the situation in Iraq. "The fact is that from beginning of this we have recognized this is tough business, it is difficult, that it is dangerous and that it is not predictable," he said.
Today's briefing comes as Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari visits Washington to confer with U.S. leaders about toughening the fight against insurgents and other issues. For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".