Sat, Dec 25, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Rumsfeld visits troops in `bleak' Iraq

STILL CONFIDENT The US defense secretary inspected the military site where a suspected suicide bomber killed 22 people, then Fallujah, where three US Marines died

AP , MOSUL, IRAQ

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on a surprise Christmas Eve visit with US troops three days after the devastating attack on a military dining hall, told soldiers he remained confident of defeating the insurgency and stabilizing Iraq, while noting that to some "it looks bleak."

"There's no doubt in my mind, this is achievable," he told troops in Mosul.

"When it looks bleak, when one worries about how it's going to come out, when one reads and hears the naysayers and the doubters who say it can't be done, and that we're in a quagmire here," one should recall that there have been such doubters "throughout every conflict in the history of the world," he told about 200 soldiers of the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division at their commander's headquarters.

Traveling in secrecy amid tight security, Rumsfeld landed in pre-dawn darkness and immediately headed for a combat surgical hospital where many of the bombing victims were treated after Tues-day's lunchtime attack on a mess tent. The most seriously wounded already have been transferred to a US military hospital in Germany.

At a later stop in Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld greeted dozens of soldiers and met the commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Major General John Batiste.

Batiste said that 90 percent of the threat in his area, which covers four provinces in northcentral and northeastern Iraq is from former Baathist regime elements.

He told Rumsfeld the groundwork was being laid for successful elections in this part of Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni.

His third stop was in Fallujah, where Marine infantrymen fought insurgents on Thursday as warplanes and tanks bombarded guerrilla positions in the heaviest fighting there in weeks.

However, all seemed quiet yesterday as he met with Marines at their main base outside the city.

"What's taking place here is at a stage where a great many people doubt whether or not it can be accomplished," he said, reprising the theme he used in Mosul.

But he reminded about 200 Marines eating lunch in a mess hall adorned with several small plastic trees and homemade Christmas decorations that repressive regimes in Germany and the former Soviet Union had been removed and said he was confident freedom would prevail in Iraq.

"All I can say is, people basically want to be free," he said to cheers and applause in the refurbished brick and plaster Iraqi building.

The 72-year-old defense chief spent time shaking hands and posing with soldiers who wanted to have their picture taken with him.

He also took questions from the crowds, but none had the critical edge that he ran into in Kuwait on his most recent visit to the region.

The blast on Tuesday was the deadliest single attack on a US base in Iraq, striking as hundreds of soldiers sat down to lunch. Fourteen US servicemembers were among the 22 killed.

The top US general in northern Iraq said on Thursday that the suicide bomber was probably wearing an Iraqi military uniform. The episode has focused new attention on the ability of the US military to protect its forces.

Rumsfeld's visit came as US Marines engaged in the heaviest fighting in weeks in Fallujah, where US troops waged bloody battles before clearing the city of most militants last month. Three Marines were killed in fighting that underlined how far the city and surrounding area are from being tamed as the US and its Iraqi allies try to bring quiet before national elections.

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