Contrary to Robert D. Novak's assertions in his Oct. 7 op-ed column "No Victory in Iraq," there is no secret plan for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2005. U.S. forces will remain in Iraq for as long as they are needed. The president and various senior officials have stated and re-stated that position. Mr. Novak is wrong to conclude that not responding to his column putting forth the withdrawal scheme is an implicit endorsement of his incorrect thesis.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's refusal to discuss a timeline for the U.S. presence in Iraq -- to which Mr. Novak devoted much tortured speculation -- reflects the secretary's belief that setting timelines is a fool's errand. Progress in Iraq has been steady; elections will take place in January, and, for the first time, Iraqi citizens will select their own leaders. At the same time, Iraqi security forces are being trained and increasingly are providing for the defense of their own country. When those forces are capable of providing for the basic security of Iraq, the need for a large presence of U.S. and coalition forces will be greatly reduced. It is the conditions in the country as evaluated by U.S. commanders, together with the Iraqi government, that will determine the timing for such reductions.

LAWRENCE Di RITA

Principal Deputy Assistant for Public Affairs

Defense Department

Washington