Moments after Donald H. Rumsfeld said how much more "fun" it was to be questioned by the troops in Baghdad than the critics in Washington, the troops in the Iraqi capital hit the defense secretary with a barrage of serious, probing and sometimes personal inquiries, some of which, he confessed, he just could not answer.
One soldier asked when they were improved vests and better armor for the Humvees. It's those roadside bombs, he said. "We lost some soldiers due to them."
Another asked whether it was true that the military would not pay their full air fare back home.
Yet another wanted to know why his military medical coverage wouldn't handle physical therapy for his handicapped child.
When, if ever, would the United Nations send some troops and where would they come from?
Would Defense Department employees who are civilians working with the military be permitted to carry guns, asked a civilian working with the military?
The entire town hall meeting was televised live on CNN.
And sometimes it did indeed sound to Rumsfeld like a televised news conference full of journalists back home.
"Mr. Secretary," said a member of the audience. "You have said you would like to reduce the number of troops in Iraq. Instead, more troops are being sent."
"You should be a journalist," Rumsfeld told her, smiling.
"Well, you're right," he said. "Our goal is to not have troops in Iraq, It's to have the Iraqi people take charge of their country and take charge of their security. And that's why you folks are working so hard to help recruit and train and equip and deploy and mentor the Iraqi security forces. So our goal is to pass that responsibility to them as soon as they're capable of taking it."
It was the longest answer of the day, albeit short by Rumsfeld's Washington standards.
Most of his responses were referrals, to Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , who was standing beside him, or to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who was behind him.
Sometimes they could not answer either, and referred the questions onward, as they did with the soldier concerned about his handicapped child, who was told to see the officer in charge of health insurance.
Sometimes they answered.
"Good points. Excellent points," Myers said in response to the question about the armor.
"You can imagine we spend a lot of time on force protection, and our responsibility, I think, is to ensure we have the resources and protection lines and all that cranked up to get the equipment we need . . . We're producing them and sending them over here as fast as we can. . . . Production is ramping up this month," Myers said.
Rumsfeld, who came to Baghdad after being grilled before two congressional committees about prisoner abuse, was good natured throughout, even when he was, by his own admission, clueless, as he was on the question of arming Defense Department civilians.
The exchange on that subject went like this:
Questioner: "Sir, there are many DOD civilians who are here in the theater, and many of us are unarmed. And many times we're placed in harm's way in convoys and we have no means to protect ourselves. And I know there's been many memos and letters I've seen floating around saying it's the policy to arm civilians if they need to be armed, if they're in harm's way. But there seems to be a resistance . . . to actually provide arms to us. I was wondering what the current policy is on that."
Rumsfeld: "Well, I could do several things at this point. I could admit I don't know what the current policy is here, or I could turn around and ask General Rick Sanchez to come over here. Then he'll say he doesn't know."
Rumsfeld then called on Sanchez for an answer. He didn't know.
"We'll be able to get the definitive answer," said Sanchez. "But right now, we have been working to try to get the authorities to arm the civilians here. That has been an issue for some time. And you're right, we're working that and we have been for some time. And we'll get -- I'll get a specific status for you. Okay?"
It was okay.
The final question was equally serious, "about stability when we return home," said the questioner.
"I, like a bunch of people here and including my brothers, who are in Afghanistan right now, are on our second tours already within two years. I volunteered to come back over here because it's my duty to serve, but a lot of people don't get a chance to say hey, I'm ready to come back. Is there a plan for stability?"
"We have 20th-century industrial-age planning tools in terms of force management," said Rumsfeld. "They're making major efforts to improve them and they're getting better, but they're far from perfect."
When it was over, Rumsfeld got one thing he never gets from the press in Washington: a standing ovation.
"Thank you for your service," he said. "May God bless you and your wonderful families."