Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hit back yesterday at critics second-guessing the Iraqi war plan, saying the military has no intention of launching a broader, more indiscriminate bombing campaign and insisting that the plan of attack was vetted and approved by a large number of uniformed officers.
A little more than a week into the war in Iraq, Rumsfeld and the Pentagon leadership are weathering a barrage of criticism from current and retired military officers, who say U.S. forces in Iraq are undermanned and stretched too thin, and that the bombing campaign has been too timid. The Army's senior ground commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, conceded this week that the Iraqis have been far more tenacious and vicious than expected.
But Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the war plan is sound, on track, and being executed well. "I'll give you a definitive statement: I think it's a brilliant plan," Myers told reporters at the Pentagon.
Contradicting some senior officers, Rumsfeld said any "careful reading" of human rights reports and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's record should have prepared soldiers and Marines for the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics they are now encountering from irregular Iraqi forces.
"The viciousness of the regime ought not be a surprise," he said.
Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said earlier this week that he "personally underestimated the willingness of the Fedayeen to fight or maybe overestimated the willingness of the Shiites to rise up."
The Fedayeen is a Baath Party militia commanded by Hussein's son Uday. Shiite Muslims, who are the largest religious group in Iraq, have long opposed rule by Hussein's Baath Party, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim.
Rumsfeld acknowledged criticism that the air campaign has been too timid and fearful of civilian casualties. Critics have equated the U.S. approach to "a lack of will," he said. "The opposite is true," Rumsfeld replied. "It is important not just to win, but to win justly."
Pentagon officials said the problem is not so much with the war plan but the disconnect between the gritty reports from reporters with U.S. and British forces on the battlefield and the antiseptic optimism delivered at media briefings at the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command media center in Doha, Qatar.
One official said Rumsfeld should be acknowledging that Iraqi resistance has been fiercer than expected and that a reassessment of U.S. strategy is underway, just as his field commanders have done. "This is an outfit that cannot ever admit they are not perfect," the defense official said.
Pentagon officials said the disconnect is understandable. Rumsfeld acknowledged that "the massive volume of television" and "breathless reports" from the battlefield are often arriving in people's living rooms before Pentagon officials can confirm their validity and meaning.
But the refusal of military briefers to recognize misjudgments or shifts in tactics while their field commanders do so has raised concerns that Pentagon leaders are losing credibility, defense officials said. One called the media's relationship with the Defense Department leadership "pretty brittle right now."
"We're handcuffing the briefers and the press in their ability to make sense of all of this," the official said.
Rumsfeld bristled at the suggestion that Pentagon officials were withholding information from the media and the public.
"No one in this government here or on the ground [in Iraq] is going to underreport what's happening," he said. "Even to suggest it is outrageous."
Myers and Rumsfeld both described the skirmishing that has slowed the advance of Marines and rear-guard Army troops in southern Iraq as militarily insignificant.
The wisdom of the war plan's "rolling start," in which the first ground attack began before much of the fighting force had left the United States, is being debated in the Pentagon around water coolers, cafeteria tables and office meetings, a defense official said.
Rumsfeld exhibited no such concern. He firmly stated the war plan belonged to Central Command's commander-in-chief, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, responding to critics who say he personally took too large a role in formulating it.
"The military officers who have reviewed it have all said they thought it's an excellent plan," he concluded. "Indeed, adjectives have been used that go beyond that, quite complimentary."