KUWAIT - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he expects U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq within four years, but he cautioned that any final decision hinged on the progress that Iraq's civilian government and security forces make by then.
Asked by reporters traveling with him whether U.S. forces would be out of Iraq by the end of his term, Rumsfeld paused to ask whether that meant a second four-term term. When told yes, he said, "I would certainly expect that to be the case and hope that to be the case."
Many American military officers and senior Iraqi ministry officials have forecast that the United States would have to keep a sizable troop presence in Iraq for years to come to battle a resilient and deadly insurgency, and to help prevent the country from spiraling into civil war.
Rumsfeld arrived at the beginning of a four-day trip that includes joining Vice President Dick Cheney at the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Afghan president today in Kabul, a troop visit here and a stop in India.
Rumsfeld acknowledged that the two biggest mistakes or misjudgments that had been made - though not necessarily by him - were the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a lack of intelligence that predicted "the degree of insurgency today."
Rumsfeld remained defiant in the face of critics who say the United States failed to send enough troops to Iraq initially to handle postwar security and now, to combat the insurgents. He said that the decision on troop levels was largely "out of my control," because he was following the advice and requests of his regional commanders, first Gen. Tommy R. Franks and now, Gen. John P. Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr.
While that technically may be true, Rumsfeld approves all decisions on troop levels in Iraq, and is famous among his commanders and top civilian aides for demanding detailed explanations for troop increases and movements.
U.S. commanders in Iraq have said the timing of the withdrawal of any American troops in Iraq depends on the security situation and on the ability of Iraqi security forces, now 115,000 strong, to conduct operations independently and competently.
Rumsfeld said the Iraqis have been "performing very well," but acknowledged that in the battle against a well-armed, well-trained and well-led insurgency, some troops, like Iraqi army forces, had fought well, but that poorly equipped police officers had been caught in "a mismatch" with militants.
"We've got the task of continuing the training and equipping of the Iraqis so that they can take over the security responsibilities," Rumsfeld said. "There's going to be some steps forward and steps back."
Despite the increasing attacks on Iraqi police and other Iraqi security forces, Rumsfeld said, there is no shortage of fresh recruits ready to sign up.
Iraq, with help from U.S. officers, continues to wrestle to establish equitable pay scales, arrange compensation for families of Iraqi forces killed in action, and create fair promotion and vetting systems, he said.
"The extremists have decided that the Iraqi security forces are a danger to them," Rumsfeld said. "Elsewise, why would they be running around trying to kill so many of them?"
Rumsfeld said the insurgents cannot defeat U.S. forces. "All they can do is try to outlast."