Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) is not up for reelection. She is running this fall. This version has been corrected.

Rumsfeld Tells Iraq Critics to 'Back Off'

By Jonathan Weisman and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 27, 2006

With his chorus of critics expanding deeper into Republican ranks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told detractors yesterday to pull back as U.S. and Iraqi officials grapple with the uncertainties of laying out Iraq's course.

"You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it's complicated, it's difficult," Rumsfeld said, appearing unusually combative as he sparred with reporters at the Pentagon. "Honorable people are working on these things together," he said, adding emphatically that "no daylight" exists between the U.S. and Iraqi sides.

But with just 12 days before the Nov. 7 elections, bipartisan criticism of the war appears to be gaining momentum, despite Rumsfeld's pugnacious defense of the Bush administration's Iraq strategy. The office of Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) mocked Rumsfeld's admonition on a day when October's death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq reached 96, the highest monthly total in a year.

More troubling for President Bush, the cracks in the Republican Party's support for the war are widening. In recent days, Rep. Anne M. Northup (Ky.) and Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio) have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, and Rep. John E. Sweeney (N.Y.) and Tennessee's Republican Senate candidate, Bob Corker, have declared that "stay the course" is not a viable strategy. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) has said she would not have authorized the invasion if she knew then what she knows now; and Rep. Curt Weldon (Pa.) has demanded that generals -- not the White House -- draft a plan for withdrawal.

Bush declared Wednesday that the United States is winning the war in Iraq, but acknowledged that he is not satisfied with the situation and vowed to press Iraqi leaders to do more to stabilize their country on their own.

"Everyone's trying to make a little mischief out of this, and . . . turn it into a political football," Rumsfeld said yesterday of the ongoing talks over goals by the Iraqi leadership, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior U.S. commander in Iraq. He denied reports that Casey sought to increase U.S. troops in the country, and he said a majority of the 310,000 Iraqi security forces are "in the lead" and "bearing the brunt of the battle" in Iraq.

Rumsfeld said setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government to assume greater control over security and the operation of public institutions does not imply strict deadlines. "You're looking for some sort of guillotine to come falling down if some date isn't met. That is not what this is about," he said.

Four months ago, House Republican leaders orchestrated an 11-hour floor debate, hoping to put Democrats on record as opposing Bush's stand to see the war through until "the mission to create a sovereign, free, secure and united Iraq" has been reached. Over the summer, a trickle of Republicans voiced concern that the war was not going the way the White House was portraying it. Now, many more Republicans are adding their voices.

"You can have a bad week, you can have two bad weeks, but when you have two bad months, you have to reassess," Northup said this week as she called for Rumsfeld's replacement. "You cannot afford to lose the numbers we are losing now and just keep slugging away."

Sweeney told the Glen Falls, N.Y., Kiwanis Club last week: "I think that the strategy of 'staying the course' is not a strategy at all. It doesn't work."

Rumsfeld "would not be my secretary of defense if I was the president of the United States," the embattled DeWine told CNN. "He has, you know, made huge mistakes. And I think history will judge him very harshly."

"I can't defend how the president laid out the need for [going to war in Iraq]. I don't support Rumsfeld," Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) said recently in a local newspaper.

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