One-week after millions of Iraqis went to the polls to determine representation in a national assembly that will draft a constitution, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was repeatedly asked how much longer American servicemen will have to stay in Iraq.
"It [a withdrawal date] is not knowable," he said on NBC's Meet the Press Program. "The answer as to when our troops can come out is dependent on the conditions on the ground, and whether or not the Iraqis are capable of managing the security situation there. We are working very hard to see that they can."
The defense secretary acknowledged a need to train more Iraqi security forces to perform tasks ranging from counter-insurgency to common police work.
Mr. Rumsfeld said, several factors could play a role in determining when U.S. troops come home. Those factors include what Mr. Rumsfeld termed "the behavior" of Iraq's neighbors, such as Iran and Syria, and the extent to which the Iraqi people rally around the new government and reject the insurgency.
President Bush and others in his Cabinet have steadfastly rejected establishing what they regard as an arbitrary timetable for withdrawing troops, arguing that doing so would embolden insurgents in Iraq to bide their time until American servicemen depart.
Yet, several prominent Democratic senators see a prolonged, open-ended U.S. military engagement in Iraq as an impediment to the very embrace of democracy and self-reliance in security matters that the United States hopes to foster in Iraq. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy also spoke on NBC's Meet the Press. "There is no reason in the world that we cannot expect Iraqis to be trained with[in] four months, eight months, 12 months, so that they are going to fight for their country, and they are going to be willing to die for it. Why can they not defend their own country? How long do we have to have Americans fighting and dying [in Iraq]?"
Mr. Kennedy said U.S. forces should be disengaged from Iraq at some point next year.
Meanwhile, just what kind of nation Iraqis will ultimately forge through the drafting of a constitution remains in question. Some observers have noted that Iraq's Shiite majority could push for a hard-line Islamic state that more closely mirrors Iran's theocracy than a western-style pluralistic democracy.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney expressed hope that moderation and inclusiveness will prevail in Iraq. "I think there are a great many people involved in the political process in Iraq who will seek some kind of balance [between factions]. But in the final analysis, the bottom line for everyone to remember is: this is not going to be an Iraqi version of America. This is going to be Iraqi. It [the constitution] is going to be written by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis," he said.
Mr. Cheney added that it is "essential" that Iraqis be allowed to shape their country as they see fit.