US President George W. Bush sacrificed his right-hand man in the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as his administration scrambled on Wednesday to find its feet after a bruising election defeat that brought the Democrats to power in Congress.
Only days after saying Rumsfeld would stay until the end of the Bush administration in 2009, the president accepted the resignation of the man who had become synonymous with the Iraq War, the broader "war on terror" and the neo-conservative project to pacify the Middle East. Former CIA director Robert Gates will be the new defense secretary, Bush said.
Bush admitted that his party had received "a thumping" in Tuesday's elections. Democrats won the House of Representatives with a net gain of about 30 seats.
"I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made" in Iraq, he said at a news conference at the White House. "Yet I also believe most Americans -- and leaders here in Washington from both political parties -- understand we cannot accept defeat."
The future of the Senate remained uncertain on Wednesday. The Democrats controlled 50 seats, after a tight race in Montana was declared in their favor. The Republicans controlled 49.
The last Senate seat, in Virginia, was still undecided as poll workers counted absentee and provisional ballots watched by lawyers. Democratic candidate James Webb held a narrow lead over Republican incumbent George Allen.
The election broke the Republican monopoly of power in Washington which has lasted for most of Bush's presidency, apart from an 18-month spell when the Democrats held a one-vote majority in the Senate. The Democrats have not held the House for 12 years.
Bush pledged to work together with the Democrats in Congress, and is due to have lunch today with House speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco congresswoman who, when sworn in, will be second in line in presidential succession after Vice President Dick Cheney.
A few days before Tuesday's vote Pelosi described the president as "incompetent," "dangerous" and "in denial." Bush said he accepted that such language was all part of the campaigning and pointed out he had been in tough contests before.
"This isn't my first rodeo," he said.
Pelosi also promised to try to bring "civility and bipartisanship" to Washington, but said the Democratic gains on Tuesday reflected a deep desire among Americans for change, particularly in Iraq.
"It will give a fresh start to finding a solution to Iraq, rather than staying the course," Pelosi said.
It was unclear yesterday how much of a change of course in Iraq Rumsfeld's departure indicated. Bush has said he was open to the suggestions of a bipartisan panel, the Iraq Study Group, of which Gates is a member, which is due to make recommendations in a few weeks.
Bush said that he, like the Democrats, wanted the troops to come home, but he wanted them "to come home to victory."
Daniel Goure, a Pentagon adviser and a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington, said the choice of Gates suggested that Bush was not prepared to make a significant change of direction.
"The more things change the more they remain the same," Goure said. "Bob Gates is the second to last person I would expect to be chosen. He has no military experience but the point is he will not cross the president and vice-president."