Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Monday portrayed the retaking of the Iraqi city of Samarra over the weekend by U.S. and Iraqi forces as a model for military action he said is likely to be needed to reestablish government control elsewhere in Iraq.
"What has to be done in that country is what basically was done in Samarra over the last 48 hours," he told an audience here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
With Sunni insurgents operating with virtual impunity in a number of areas in central Iraq, U.S. and Iraq officials have warned of a series of coming military offensives to restore order in advance of of national elections scheduled for January. Rumsfeld outlined a series of steps for dealing with these strongholds of resistance, starting with diplomacy, followed by threatening force and finally using force.
"That's what happened in Samarra," Rumsfeld said. "And my guess is that what you'll see in that country is the government of Iraq systematically deciding that they are not going to accept the idea of safe havens and foreign terrorists and former regime elements running around threatening and killing people."
Rumsfeld's remarks came during a lengthy question-and-answer session that touched on a range of issues, though most were related in some way to the conflict in Iraq. Among the highlights:
* Rumsfeld said Iran is doing "a lot of meddling" in Iraq and is clearly intent on affecting the upcoming elections. "They're sending money in, they're sending weapons in, and they're notably unhelpful," he said.
He also spoke of Iran serving as a haven for al Qaeda operatives, although he described the relationship between the country and the terrorist network as "a funny one." He noted that "a lot of" senior al Qaeda members have moved in and out of Iran "over a period of time" and some apparently are there now. "But there is at least an impression that they're not fully free to do anything they want at the moment," he added.
* He called Syria "unhelpful" as well for refusing to release frozen Iraqi assets and for allowing movement of foreign terrorists across its 450-mile border with Iraq.
A delegation of senior Pentagon and State Department officials traveled to Damascus last month to press U.S. concerns about the border. Some U.S. officials have expressed the hope that the discussions would lead to greater military cooperation along the border. But Rumsfeld made it clear he is reserving judgment on whether the talks will make much difference.
* On possible connections between al Qaeda and the former government of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld said he had "not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two." But he also said he had seen intelligence on that question "migrate" in the past year "in the most amazing way," adding that intelligence differences persist.
Last night, saying his remarks had been "misunderstood," Rumsfeld issued a clarification. He noted that as far back as September 2002 he had acknowledged "ties" between Iraq and al Qaeda based on a CIA assessment. That assessment cited, among other things, the presence of al Qaeda members in Iraq and "senior-level contacts" stretching back a decade.