Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met Saturday with his counterparts from 18 nations that belong to the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying with the group to an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf to observe training flights and speak by secure videoconference with the top U.S. general in Iraq.
Aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, about 150 miles north of this gulf kingdom, Rumsfeld and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, spoke to the defense officials about progress in Iraq and plans for holding elections there in coming months, one defense official said. The ministers were also briefed on the security situation in Afghanistan, where a presidential election was held Saturday but was marred by fraud allegations and a candidates' boycott.
Defense ministers said they were encouraged by the updates but that they believed far more needed to be done in Iraq to establish security and make fair elections possible. And while 18 nations were represented, many were countries that have made small, largely symbolic contributions in the form of troops or political support. Nine NATO nations attended, but major U.S. allies such as Britain, France and Germany were not among them.
Pentagon officials have said in recent weeks that they might have to ask coalition partners to contribute more troops to help secure Iraq's elections, which are planned for January. Rumsfeld and his top generals, however, have said they hope to train enough Iraqi security forces to handle that task.
A defense official said after the meeting that Casey hopes to have 145,000 Iraqi security troops equipped and trained by January. Some of the discussion Saturday was about getting equipment and money into Iraq to help with the effort.
Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the Polish defense minister, said the meeting was worthwhile for the coalition members but also highlighted the need for Iraqis to take control of the security situation. Szmajdzinski, speaking through an interpreter in the carrier's hangar and raising his voice to compete with the frequent booms of fighter jets, said he believed it would send the wrong message if foreign troops were guarding Iraqi polling sites.
"That would be a signal that would be very damaging for Iraqis," Szmajdzinski said. He called on NATO to send in more trainers to build up Iraq's forces.
Rumsfeld is scheduled to attend an informal NATO meeting next week in Romania, where the topics of discussion are expected to include the NATO training mission in Afghanistan and training assistance in Iraq.
Szmajdzinski said Poland, which has been cited by President Bush in his two debates with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as one of the United States' strongest allies in the Iraq war, cannot send more troops to Iraq, for both political and financial reasons.
Similar comments have come from other coalition partners in recent days, along with announcements of pending troop reductions. Even such countries as Slovakia, which has about 100 soldiers in Iraq, say they cannot send more troops because their domestic political situations are too delicate. Defense Minister Juraj Liska said in a recent interview that Slovakia's parliament had tried several times to bring all Slovak troops home, even as government leaders strongly endorsed involvement in Iraq and the war on terrorism.
Lawrence T. DiRita, a Pentagon spokesman who attended the meeting, said many of the coalition partners wanted to know what they could do to help.
"There needs to be more negotiation with the people in Iraq, so that they will take control of their own country and have their own elections," said Hamad Bin Hamad Attiyah, the defense minister of Qatar, which has allowed the United States to launch missions from its bases. "Maybe we need more countries to help in Iraq. They need democracy, that much is sure."
Rumsfeld toured the John F. Kennedy, which runs dozens of missions each day related to the war, including surveillance and strategic bombing.
Rumsfeld presided over a reenlistment ceremony for 80 shipmates who assembled in the carrier's hangar. He praised them for volunteering to help fight terrorism and then awarded the ship the new global war on terror medal, which drew a roar of applause.
Petty Officer 1st Class Ruben Layug said he was proud of what his ship is accomplishing, even if its remote location keeps it from receiving much attention.
"We're working very hard," Layug, 37, of Fresno, Calif., said. "It's a very, very hard war. If it was an easy war, it would be all over by now."