Rumsfeld Will Not Set Timetable for Iraq Withdrawal

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005; 1:30 PM

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today rejected calls to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, saying that would be a "mistake" because it would send a "lifeline to terrorists."

Testifying before a tense Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Rumsfeld also rejected a senator's claim that the Iraq war had become a quagmire, saying that was "fundamentally inconsistent with the facts."

Rumsfeld insisted that success in Iraq "cannot be defined by domestic tranquility." Rumsfeld's comments came on a bloody day in Iraq, when seven car bombs killed more than three dozen people in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods in Baghdad over a 10-hour period between Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

"Any who say we are losing this war are wrong," Rumsfeld told congressional Democrats demanding answers about the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. "We are not."

Later in the hearing, Army Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, seemed to contradict recent statements by Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes."

"I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Abizaid said. "There's a lot of work to be done against the insurgency."

Citing what he called "gross errors and mistakes" in the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked Rumsfeld if it wasn't time for him to resign.

"I've offered my resignation to the president twice," Rumsfeld shot back, adding that President Bush decided not to accept it. "That's his call."

More than 1,700 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Iraq and pressure is growing on the Bush administration to bring American soldiers home. Democrats have stepped up their attacks in recent days and polls show Americans becoming increasingly pessimistic about the U.S. involvement there.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than half of the American public said they believe the fight in Iraq has not made the United States safer; nearly three-quarters of Americans said the number of casualties in Iraq was unacceptable, while two-thirds said the U.S. military is bogged down there. Nearly six in 10 said the war was not worth fighting and more than four in 10 people believe the U.S. presence in Iraq is becoming analogous to the experience in Vietnam.

Rumsfeld said timing in a war is "never predictable. There are never guarantees." He said "success will not be easy and it will require patience."

He insisted, however, that setting a deadline for a U.S. withdrawal would be a mistake as it would "throw a lifeline to terrorists."

Gen. Richard Myers, the Joint Chiefs Chairman, was even more forceful about the effects of a U.S. withdrawal.

"Leaving before the task is complete would be catastrophic," he told the committee, "not only for Iraq but also for the struggle against violent extremism." He said U.S. troops should not leave "until the job is done."

Rumsfeld and Myers made their comments after Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, called the Bush administration's Iraq strategy "unacceptable" and said options needed to be weighed.

Levin said only a political settlement would put an end to the insurgency in Iraq and that Baghdad must be told that the U.S. may withdraw troops if a political settlement isn't reached.

"The Iraqis have approved a timetable for adopting a constitution -- August 15 with the possibility of one and only one 6-month extension," Levin said. "The U.S. needs to tell the Iraqis and the world that if that deadline is not met we will review our position with all options open including but not limited to setting a timetable for withdrawal."

Levin said the cost of the war in Iraq is "$230 billion and rising." He also took issue with the administration's upbeat pronouncements of the war.

"The fact is that the insurgency has not weakened," Levin said.

Rumsfeld said the suggestion that the administration was painting a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq was false.

"We have recognized this is a tough business. It is difficult, it is dangerous and it is not predictable," he said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari met at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Friday, he is scheduled to meet with President Bush.