U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave a news conference Saturday at the conclusion of his three-day visit to Iraq, which took place under tight security and amid continuing violence in the country.
Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters in Baghdad Saturday that he came to Iraq to thank U.S. troops for their efforts to restore stability in the war-torn country. "It is important that they understand how important what they are doing is to the Iraqi people, to the region, to the United States of America, and to the world," said Mr. Rumsfeld.
The secretary's Iraq visit came amid rising criticism from opposition leaders in the United States over the continued presence of some 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and reports of unhappiness among some of them over the prospect of a lengthy stay.
The United Nations Security Council is considering a U.S. proposal aimed at broadening international participation in the reconstruction of Iraq. However, Germany, France and Russia say the proposal retains too much power in U.S. hands and say they want it changed.
Mr. Rumsfeld Saturday visited a mass burial site and a notorious death prison in Hilla, 100 kilometers south of Baghdad. He also went to the historical site of Babylon and met the Polish commander of a recently installed international force providing security in central Iraq.
U.S. military commanders Wednesday handed over responsibility for security in the area around Hilla and Najaf to an international force that includes troops from Spain and the Ukraine. A total of 29 countries are participating in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
On Friday, Mr. Rumsfeld visited American troops in the northern cities of Tikrit and Mosul, after meeting in Baghdad with the head of the coalition provisional authority, Paul Bremer, and the U.S. commander of coalition forces, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez.
In remarks recorded earlier in the trip, Mr. Rumsfeld said that although the Bush administration continues to seek military support from other nations, the ultimate goal is for Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own security. "Mostly what we want, and what General Sanchez wants and what Bremer wants, is more Iraqi forces," he said. "We want more force protection, more site protection, more border protection, more police protection in cities by Iraqis. This is their country."
Coalition officials say they expect the number of Iraqi security forces to nearly double by the end of next year from the current figure of 55,000.
Mr. Rumsfeld's visit took place under tight security. His itinerary was kept secret and he was protected throughout the trip by a phalanx of soldiers and security officials.
There was no let up in violence in Iraq during Mr. Rumsfeld's visit. A British civilian de-mining expert was shot to death in Mosul and unidentified gunmen Friday attacked a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, wounding three worshippers.