U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is placing new emphasis on the need for Iraqis to take control of their future, as their security forces improve and the country prepares to elect its first permanent government since the U.S.-led invasion more than two and a half years ago. The secretary's comments, at a news conference Tuesday, came one day before President Bush is to give a major speech on the situation in Iraq amid growing calls in Congress for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as soon as possible.
Secretary Rumsfeld frequently speaks about the progress of Iraq's political process and its new security forces. But on Tuesday he added a new emphasis, calling on Iraqis in strong terms to take more responsibility for their country's future.
"They know that they're the ones who are going to have to grab that country, and it's time," said Mr. Rumsfeld.
Secretary Rumsfeld repeated his theme several times.
"It's their country. They're going to have to grab a hold of it and run it," he added.
He said Iraqi officials understand the need to do that. And he offered some specifics, saying no one should assume that the strategy of clearing insurgents out of parts of the country, holding the ground and rebuilding the infrastructure is exclusively, or even primarily, a U.S. responsibility.
"It is the Iraqis' country," he said. "They've got 28 million people there. They are clearing. They are holding. They are building. They're going to be the ones doing the reconstruction in that country. With 160,000 troops there, the idea that we could do that is so far from reality, nor was there any intention that we should do that."
Secretary Rumsfeld said there is a tendency among Americans to feel that that the U.S. military should be responsible for doing whatever needs to be done in Iraq. But he says that is increasingly not the case.
"It is the Iraqis' country, 28 million of them," he noted. "They are perfectly capable of running that country. They're not going to run it the way you would, or I would, or the way we do here in this country. But they're going to run it."
The secretary's calls for Iraqis to start running their own country came amid criticism from some members of the U.S. Congress who say there are not enough U.S. troops in Iraq to defeat the insurgency. And he also responded to others in the Congress, and elsewhere, who are calling for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"Quitting is not an exit strategy," he explained. "It would be a formula for putting the American people at still greater risk. It would be an invitation for more terrorist violence. Rather than thinking in terms of an exit strategy, we should be focused on our strategy for victory, and that is the president's strategy."
Secretary Rumsfeld said the new Iraqi security forces are improving every day, and are already responsible for some parts of the country, including part of Baghdad. And he said the election scheduled for December 15 will result in a legitimate government with a four-year mandate, a government he hopes Iraqis will support over the insurgents. Indeed, the secretary expressed the hope that the election will be the "tipping point" officials have talked about, inspiring Iraqis who support the insurgency, or who have been neutral, to turn against those who perpetrate violence against Iraqi civilians, coalition and Iraqi troops, and the newly elected government.
The top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, says there is evidence some of that is already happening. He says in the past year and a half the number of calls from ordinary Iraqis reporting insurgent activity has increased from about five hundred per month to 4,500 last month. General Pace reports that on Monday, a tip pointed U.S. and Iraqi forces to a building where they found a bomb factory and thousands of kilograms of explosives.