US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday he is concerned that the war in Iraq could alienate people in Southeast Asia's Muslim nations, where he will travel next week.
Speaking to military leaders at a security conference, Rumsfeld said that the ill feelings will not force the US to leave Iraq prematurely and that the world eventually will understand that US troops are not there to take over Iraqi oil fields, as some critics have suggested.
"We don't intend to occupy that country for any period of time," Rumsfeld said in response to a question from the audience.
"Our troops would like to go home and they will go home," he said.
"And they will go home at a pace when we're able, along with our friends and allies with the coalition, of passing off responsibility to the Iraqi security forces, so they can pull up their socks and take responsibility for their own country," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld also issued a broad defense of Pakistan's efforts to quell terrorism, including growing problems with violent insurgents who travel across the border into Afghanistan.
He said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been less successful rooting out extremists in the tribal areas along the border, but the situation is improving.
In his speech, Rumsfeld said that security cooperation among nations in Southeast Asia is expanding but could be set back if China, Russia and North Korea don't become more open and less threatening.
Rumsfeld pledged that the US will stay involved in Southeast Asia. He pointed to improved relationships between the US and Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Pakistan.
"More nations are freer than ever before, yet freedom is increasingly under assault -- by the designs of violent extremists and rogue regimes," Rumsfeld said.
As countries work together to fight terror threats and bring aid during disasters, there are still concerns that he said the US will monitor.
"The way ahead for other nations will be something that our country will watch closely," Rumsfeld said. He said that includes attempts by Russia to restrict the freedom of neighboring countries, the continued lack of transparency in China's military budget and threats by North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons.
The future of the Pacific Rim, said Rumsfeld, will depend on the path North Korea takes -- whether it continues to repress its people and threaten its neighbors or follows Libya's example that "leads back to membership in the community of nations."
Libya has renounced weapons of mass destruction and agreed to cooperate in the hunt for terrorists. In return, the US has said it would restore full diplomatic relations.
Representatives from about two dozen nations were invited to the defense leaders' conference, which has been hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies for five years.
On this trip, Rumsfeld also plans to visit Vietnam and Indonesia, then travel to Brussels for a NATO defense ministers meeting.
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