WASHINGTON, May 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reiterated that he believes Iran is contributing to the instability in Iraq, telling U.S. senators that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would merely serve Iran's interests.
Rumsfeld told members of the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 17 that U.S. forces continue to find Iranian-manufactured weapons in Iraq, though he conceded that there is no conclusive proof of Iranian involvement.
"The problem we've got is unless you catch somebody from Iran, from the government of Iran, physically bringing a weapon into Iraq, and you can tie a string between the two, you can't assert that it necessarily was government-sponsored," he said.
Rumsfeld was nonetheless clear in his conviction that it is in Iran's interest for Iraq to be weak.
"The thought of having the Iraqi constitution and the sovereign elected government fail there would be the best thing in the world from Iran's standpoint," Rumsfeld argued.
U.S. defense secretary also appeared to suggest that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would encourage Iran in its confrontation with the international community over its nuclear program. Iran maintains that the program is strictly peaceful in purpose, but the United States and a number of allies fear Tehran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
"If people are anxious to see Iran successful in the path they're on, it strikes me that that tossing in the towel on Iraq would be a boost" for Iran, Rumsfeld told senators.
No Promise On Troop Withdrawals
The public pressure that Washington is under to cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq was evident in the committee room when guards hauled off an antiwar protestor after she shouted "Liar!" at Rumsfeld.
Her T-shirt bore the number 2,450, an apparent reference to the number of Americans killed in the conflict.
Concern in Congress at the number of U.S. casualties and the uncertainty about when troops will return from Iraq was voiced by a number of senators. One of them, Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said she feared U.S. troops are becoming "a kind of scapegoat for the militias to carry out operations against other civilians. I am really concerned about our people being caught in the middle of this, and it seems to me that the time is upon us to transition that mission and begin to confine our presence to logistics and support -- and move our people out."
Rumsfeld said he and U.S. military commanders in Iraq shared those concerns and are doing their utmost to shift more of the security burden to Iraqi forces. But, while saying that he hoped significant withdrawals might start soon, the U.S. defense secretary said he could make no promise.
There are currently over 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. This is lower than early this year, but promises of a meaningful reduction in troop levels this year have yet to materialize.
General Peter Pace, who gave testimony along with Rumsfeld in his capacity as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the process of transferring responsibility to Iraqi forces is accelerating as the Iraqi government consolidates and gains in confidence.
Treatment Of Prisoners
The senators, who are reviewing a request by the administration of President George W. Bush for funds for the fiscal year 2007, also briefly probed the behavior of U.S. troops in Iraq, a source of much criticism since revelations of the abuse and even torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghurayb prison.
Richard Durbin, a Democrat senator from Illinois, asked Rumsfeld if the Pentagon would object if U.S. soldiers had to undergo the same methods of interrogation as outlined in a new Army Field Manual, which lays down new rules governing the questioning of enemy combatants.
Rumsfeld's response was limited to one sentence: "If you're asking me, 'Will the Army Field Manual be recommending that [interrogation procedure] in every sense be complying with the law?' the answer is, 'It will.'"