U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a surprise trip to Iraq Friday to visit U.S. and Iraqi troops, and see how they are working together to build Iraq's new armed forces.
Secretary Rumsfeld arrived in Iraq at daybreak, and walked through the fog at an airfield in the northern town of Mosul to visit injured U.S. troops at a combat hospital. At the base's auditorium, he told several hundred soldiers in desert camouflage that they share the credit for the success of Iraq's elections nearly two weeks ago. He said they should feel proud that they helped liberate the people of Iraq.
"I join in paying tribute to all of those who have fallen, and been wounded, in this struggle,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “We're proud of them. We're grateful to them. We honor them. And they deserve not merely our gratitude, but our commitment to their unfinished work."
Later, at a forward base that serves as coalition headquarters in northwestern Iraq, the secretary greeted members of Iraq's new security forces, and chatted with them through an interpreter.
RUMSFELD: "Were you in the military previously?"
IRAQI SOLDIER: "He was a police officer."
RUMSFELD: "A police officer, well very good. Well, good luck to you. We'll be wishing you well."
The new Iraqi forces were a main focus of the secretary's trip. Training those soldiers and police officers, and adding to their numbers, is a top priority for the United States and its allies.
Secretary Rumsfeld watched several exercises in half a dozen locations in northern and central Iraq, some involving live ammunition. At one base, Iraqi commandos slid down ropes from a U.S. helicopter to attack a house, demonstrating how Iraq's new special operations forces might assault an insurgent hideout. He was also briefed by both Iraqi and U.S. officers on how they are working together.
This officer, identified only as Colonel Abbas, spoke to the secretary through an interpreter at one of Iraq's largest military bases near Taji, north of Baghdad. He explained that he is in the process of taking control of the base, with the transfer of authority from U.S. officers scheduled to be completed in July.
Later, after meeting with senior U.S. generals in Baghdad, Secretary Rumsfeld said both the security forces and the political situation in Iraq are showing steady progress.
"We've always said that the political and economic and security situations have to move forward together,” he said. “And we have hopes that we will see in Iraq, over time, that the political situation will improve the security situation."
This was Secretary Rumsfeld's eighth visit to Iraq, and the first by a senior U.S. official, since Iraq's election on January 30. Mr. Rumsfeld says the success of the election, and of Iraq's security services in helping to secure them, should make it easier for more U.S. allies to do more to help develop the Iraqi forces. That was his message at a NATO defense ministers meeting in France this week, where the NATO secretary-general said he hopes all alliance countries will be doing something to help, by the time of the next NATO summit in 10 days.