U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has welcomed indications by Iraq's new leader that he is close to forming a national unity government, but said he is still not ready to recommend any reduction in U.S. forces in the country. At a news conference, the secretary also expressed support for the president's nomination of an air force general as the next head of the Central Intelligence Agency, but denied reports that he is trying to assert control over all U.S. intelligence operations.
Secretary Rumsfeld said Iraq's leaders seem to sense that they have what he called a "window of opportunity" to make progress on addressing the country's many problems. "I was encouraged by reports on the comments of the prime minister-designate, Mr. Maliki, in his press conference earlier today, in particular his statement that the government being formed will represent all Iraqis and strengthen the unity of the country," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld said once the new Iraqi government ministers are in place, they can meet with the coalition commander in Iraq, and the U.S. ambassador, to begin to assess the security situation and talk about possible foreign troop reductions. He would not predict when that might happen, but the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, has indicated that if the new government is approved by parliament this month as expected, his recommendations for future troops levels could go to Washington fairly quickly.
Secretary Rumsfeld also called on Congress to fully fund the supplemental budget for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives has removed about $760 million from the budget, which the secretary says will hurt the development of the Iraqi security forces and could delay the expected reduction in U.S. forces in the country.
The defense secretary also denied media reports that the president's appointment of General Michael Hayden as CIA director is part of a Washington power play to give Rumsfeld control over the agency. He said such speculation is wrong. "It isn't, in my view, something that any one entity necessarily ought to be in charge of. It's something that we're trying to figure out - the Congress, the executive branch - we're trying to figure out what the arrangements ought to be," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld also denied contradictory reports that he does not want General Hayden to run the CIA because of a disagreement they had several years ago. Rumsfeld said the difference of opinion was not a big issue then, and is not a big issue now.
But he did express continuing concern about the accuracy of the intelligence provided to the defense department by the CIA and other agencies, including some inside the department itself. And Rumsfeld agreed with a reporter's suggestion that the problems with intelligence in the run up to the invasion of Iraq cause concern as tensions rise with Iran. "It turns out it was wrong, that intelligence. Fair enough, it's a tough business. It's a difficult thing to be right all the time. And the information was not correct. Does that give one pause, you bet," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld said the most important thing right now in the global war on terrorism is to create a stable, democratic Iraq. He said the enemies of the United States recognize that, even if what he called "some observers and pundits" do not.