U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says military considerations on the ground - and not politics in Washington - will determine the pace of any U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. Meanwhile, a prominent Democrat in Congress, who stirred renewed debate with a call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, predicts a total pull-out by the end of next year.
Iraq is the dominant issue in Washington, and questions about U.S. policy followed President Bush to Asia, where he is wrapping up a trip to four countries.
While he was defending his stance on Iraq abroad, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was making the administration's case on American television.
In interviews on four different networks Sunday, Mr. Rumsfeld discounted calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, saying U.S. troops will come home when conditions are right. He said the current troop level of about 160,000 will drop to 138,000, after Iraqi elections later this year, and then will be reassessed.
"At that time, the battlefield commanders will continue to pass over responsibility to the Iraqi security forces and to the Iraqi political and provincial leaders, and make recommendations as to their views, as to the extent to which coalition forces can be reduced further below those levels," he said.
On the Fox News Sunday program, Secretary Rumsfeld was asked about the bitter divide in the U.S. Congress over Iraq - a split that became even worse this past week when a prominent Democrat, who has sided with the White House on military matters, called on the president to bring the troops home.
John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and long-time lawmaker from the state of Pennsylvania, stirred renewed debate in Washington with his call for a U.S. withdrawal. At first, the White House lashed back, linking him to war critics on the far left of the political spectrum.
But speaking in China Sunday, President Bush sought to tone down the rhetoric. And on Fox News Sunday, Secretary Rumsfeld did the same. He said Congressman Murtha has the right to express his views, but added, talk of a quick withdrawal emboldens America's enemies, and threatens the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who thinks we are going to pull out precipitously, or immediately, as some people have proposed," he said. "Obviously, they have to wonder whether what they are doing makes sense, if that is the idea and if that is the debate."
On the NBC program, Meet the Press, Congressman Murtha said he is convinced that U.S. troops have done as much as they can in Iraq, and it is time to put the control in Iraqi hands.
"I've come to the conclusion these Iraqis are a very proud people," he said. "They can run the country themselves. They have had a history of civilization that goes back much farther than ours. We have got to give them the incentive to take it over. They will let us do the fighting, as long as we are there."
Congressman Murtha said he hopes his calls for a withdrawal will spark a dialogue in Washington on Iraq that will produce results, not just more rhetoric.
He said this is an issue that transcends politics, adding he believes a total withdrawal is possible next year with the November 2006 U.S. congressional election acting as a catalyst.
"It's the U.S. public that is thirsting for an answer to this thing," he said. "They want us to solve this problem. They don't want recriminations. They don't want a war of words. This is a real war, where people are being hurt and they want a solution to this very difficult problem."
Mr. Murtha said he would like to come to the White House to talk about the war. But with Congress and the president both out of Washington this week for the Thanksgiving holiday, no meeting is expected soon.