TIKRIT, Iraq, Dec. 24 -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday urged U.S. troops in Iraq to keep up their morale, arguing against "the naysayers and the doubters" who say the United States is "in a quagmire."
On a 12-hour surprise Christmas Eve visit to Iraq, Rumsfeld told the troops that their work was vital to defeating extremism and that they needed to stand strong against a relentless insurgency.
"When it looks bleak, when one worries about how it's going to come out, when one reads and hears the naysayers and the doubters who say it can't be done, and that we're in a quagmire here," Rumsfeld said, "the fact is there have always been people throughout every conflict in the history of the world who said it couldn't be done."
As Rumsfeld spent much of the day shaking hands, posing for pictures, and joining soldiers for meals, he carried the message of perseverance. He vowed not to delay Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 and to push ahead with the Bush administration's global war on terror, wherever it may take the U.S. military, and for however long.
"The battlefields of the global war on terror are everywhere one looks," Rumsfeld told soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division on the steps of a grandiose palace in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
"The reality is that a terrorist, an extremist, has a big pool to draw from," Rumsfeld said. "They can go out across the world and take young people and put things in these schools and teach them that their goal in life has to be to go out and kill innocent men, women and children, and they can find recruits." But he said that the United States would keep up the fight against terrorism.
"Our task, it seems to me, is to recognize this is something that will take time," Rumsfeld said.
The trip was a closely held secret until Rumsfeld landed in the northern city of Mosul before dawn, where he met with soldiers who had been injured in the devastating attack on a U.S. mess hall there on Tuesday. Military officials say they believe the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.
Rumsfeld flew into Iraq with a small group of reporters, on a trip he said he had planned in advance of the Mosul tragedy to tell soldiers how much he and the country appreciated their sacrifices.
He also visited Fallujah, the scene of recent intense fighting and continuing skirmishes with insurgents, as well as a base in Baghdad, where he met with U.S. generals and Iraqi government officials.
In Tikrit, Rumsfeld became slightly emotional while wishing the troops a Merry Christmas, pausing briefly before ending his speech.
He has been criticized for not personally signing condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, having used a signature machine instead.
Rumsfeld also has lately come under attack from members of Congress, who have called for his resignation over what they call failed war policies and ineffectiveness.
In early morning cold in Tikrit, facing a magnificent stone plaza filled with troops, Rumsfeld said the key to the future of Iraq was handing security over to its people.