Wed, Dec 22, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Bush publicly backs Rumsfeld despite mounting opposition

GOING TO BAT The US president lauded his defense secretary as a `caring fellow' as polls showed most Americans think Rummy should go

AFP , Washington

US President George W. Bush on Monday vigorously defended embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying the Pentagon chief was doing "a really fine job" and would stay on despite mounting criticism.

Bush brushed off the latest controversy sparked by disclosures that Rumsfeld had not personally signed letters of condolences to the families of US troops killed in Iraq, insisting his defense secretary was a "caring fellow."

The president told a news conference he was "very pleased" when Rumsfeld agreed to stay on after Bush won a second, four-year mandate. "He's done a fine job and I look forward to continue to work with him."

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday however showed 52 percent of Americans want Rumsfeld to step down, while only 36 percent say he should remain at the post he has held since 2001.

And an ABC News/Washington Post poll out late Monday found that Rumsfeld's approval rating was only 35 percent -- half of where it stood when Baghdad fell -- and 52 percent said Bush should sack him.

Rumsfeld has come under fire on a range of issues from prisoner abuse in Iraq to his alleged insensitivity to equipment problems plaguing US troops. He faced new heat after weekend reports he used a machine to sign his condolence letters.

But Bush made an impassioned defense of Rumsfeld's professional and personal qualities and refused to criticize him over the letters.

"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart. I know how much he cares for the troops," Bush said, recounting Rumsfeld's visits to wounded troops and "the anguish in his voice" when he speaks about the dangers in Iraq.

"He's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow," the president said.

"Sometimes, perhaps, his demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes."

Amid the criticism, Rumsfeld sent a warm holiday message to US troops in Iraq five days before Christmas, thanking them for their "courage," "commitment" and "sacrifices."

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi reacting to Bush's support, said that Rumsfeld "has refused to accept any level of responsibility or even admit any mistakes."

This despite a string of mistakes including failing to provide enough troops to secure Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and failing "to prevent horrific prisoner abuse in Iraq and elsewhere."

But Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had nothing but praise for Rumsfeld, describing him as "a historic figure at the Pentagon" who has "overseen two of the swiftest, most successful, and most humane military campaigns in human history."

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