Talk Rumsfeld to quit re-emerges


WASHINGTON -- Once again there is speculation that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has become a lightning rod for the administration's policy in Iraq, will be leaving his post.

Rumsfeld brushed aside the latest talk yesterday after a meeting on Capitol Hill.

"Those reports have been flying around since about four months after I assumed my post," he said. "I have no plans to retire."

The New York Daily News reported that Rumsfeld is expected to step down early next year. Possible replacements reportedly include acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, a Baltimore native, and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who has resisted calls within his own party for U.S. troop reductions in Iraq.

A Lieberman spokeswoman said the senator is focusing on his Capitol Hill duties and expects to run for a fourth term next year.

The White House referred reporters to Rumsfeld's comments dismissing the rumor and declined to elaborate. "We don't speculate on personnel matters," said Erin Healy, a spokeswoman.

Rumsfeld "is providing strong leadership during a time of war and doing an outstanding job," said Healy, calling him "a highly valued member of the president's team. [President Bush] fully supports the job he's doing."

In comments yesterday between closed-door meetings with House members on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld said he expects about 20,000 U.S. troops to return home from Iraq after next week's elections, and he suggested that some of the remaining 137,000 forces could pull out next year.

"If conditions permit, we could go below that," he said in the latest administration hint of at least a modest reduction next year.

Rumsfeld later took part in an Iraq briefing at the White House with Bush, some House Republican leaders and other officials, including Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rumsfeld, 73, has seen his star rise and fall several times since taking his current post in 2001.

A peacetime Navy aviator, one-time Michigan congressman and corporate executive, he has the distinction of being the youngest defense secretary - under President Gerald Ford - and the oldest.

But his hard-charging ways and the repeated setbacks for U.S. policy in Iraq have earned him many detractors, both at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

He became something of a matinee idol after the swift overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001 and the seemingly decisive invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Rumsfeld initially dismissed postwar violence in Iraq as the work of some "dead-enders." As the insurgency grew, his critics multiplied. When the Abu Ghraib prison abuses came to light in the spring of 2004, Rumsfeld's imminent departure was widely expected. Rumsfeld said he twice offered his resignation after the prison scandal broke, only to be turned down by Bush.

Just two weeks ago, during a major policy speech at the Naval Academy, Bush offered praise for Rumsfeld, saying, "I'm traveling today with a man who's done a fine job as a secretary of defense ... Navy aviator Don Rumsfeld."

But with the public increasingly souring on Iraq, the U.S. death toll passing 2,000 and Washington increasingly turning its attention to the 2006 midterm elections, there has been renewed discussion of Rumsfeld's fate.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., said he has long heard that some White House aides want Rumsfeld to leave. Now, the Bush administration might be concluding "something drastic" is necessary, he said, such as selecting a new defense secretary.

Thompson said a choice such as Lieberman makes sense. As a Democrat, he could move to broaden support for the administration's policies among the public at large and on Capitol Hill. And he would be easily confirmed by his Senate peers.

"The truth is probably known by four people whether [Rumsfeld has] been told to go," said a Republican congressional aide, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic.

"Rumsfeld is responsible for about 10 major errors," the aide said, pointing to the insufficient number of U.S. troops sent into post-invasion Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the inadequate armor and other equipment for U.S. forces.

Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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