General's religious remarks draw rebuke from Bush

Deputy undersecretary unlikely to be reassigned

October 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he disagreed with comments by a top Pentagon general who had cast the war on terrorism in religious terms, but the Defense Department said the officer would not be reassigned.

The comments by Bush were his first in public about Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and war-fighting. Boykin has likened the battle against Islamic militants to a Christian struggle against Satan and said at evangelical gatherings that a militant Muslim militia leader in Somalia worshipped an "idol" and not "a real God."

Bush, speaking before a group of moderate Muslims during a stopover in Bali, Indonesia, said the general's comments "didn't reflect my opinion," adding, "Look, it just doesn't reflect what the government thinks."

Bush's remarks came as some congressional Republicans had begun to suggest that Boykin move aside temporarily, or even resign.

"The political reality up here is that no one thinks Boykin will survive," said a senior congressional Republican official.

Calls for the general's temporary reassignment have come from, among others, Virginia Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee. But according to Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita "nobody's thinking about asking him to step aside."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters on Tuesday that Boykin had requested an internal investigation, and that he had agreed. But Rumsfeld declined to criticize the general's comments.

The defense secretary was scheduled to meet later yesterday with senators from both parties on Iraq, and congressional officials said they expected the issue of Boykin to be addressed.

Two Republican congressional officials said they believed that Rumsfeld had made a mistake in refusing to criticize Boykin, and that he had allowed personal loyalty to get in the way of political wisdom.

One senior Republican official said anger had redoubled concern about Rumsfeld that has until now focused on the secretary's reluctance to accept responsibility for setbacks in Iraq. Another said the sense was that Rumsfeld was increasingly becoming a problem for the administration.

Boykin, a highly decorated officer who was confirmed by the Senate in June as a deputy undersecretary of defense, came under criticism last week, after NBC News and the Los Angeles Times reported details of his comments during several speeches before Christian evangelical churches.

On Friday, the Pentagon released a written statement in which the general said he wanted to apologize "to those who have been offended by my statements."

But Boykin made clear in a written statement that he had no intention of resigning, and that he believed at least some of his remarks had been taken out of context.

Religious leaders from many denominations have said Boykin's words run the danger of inflaming anti-American sentiment across the Islamic world.

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