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Rumsfeld rejects setting timeline to leave Iraq

Defense chief tells lawmakers such a move would aid terrorists

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says setting a deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq would throw "a lifeline to terrorists."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- During a sometimes contentious hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that it would be a mistake to set deadlines for pulling U.S.-led coalition forces out of Iraq.

He said that such a timetable would "throw a lifeline to terrorists who in recent months have suffered significant losses and casualties, been denied havens and suffered weakened popular support."

With the deaths of more than 1,700 U.S. troops in Iraq, public support for the war has been falling in recent surveys. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday found that nearly six in 10 Americans oppose the war in Iraq. (Full story)

A bipartisan group from the House of Representatives has sponsored legislation calling on the Bush administration to announce a plan for a U.S. withdrawal. (Full story)

Rumsfeld told the Senate panel Thursday that the Iraqi government and security forces have made great strides, but he said it was impossible to know when they would reach the goal of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Iraq.

"Iraq was a violent place before its liberation, and there will undoubtedly be some violence in Iraq after the coalition forces depart. But success in this effort cannot be defined by domestic tranquillity," Rumsfeld said.

"Rather, success will be when there is a free Iraq where Iraqis are the guarantor of their own security with minimal coalition involvement, and that will be a historic accomplishment."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, accused Rumsfeld of "mismanaging the war" and of putting U.S. troops and national security in danger.

"Our troops deserve better, Mr. Secretary. I think the American people deserve better," Kennedy said. "They deserve competency, and they deserve the facts. In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out. What is it for the secretary of defense?"

Rumsfeld replied that he had offered President Bush his resignation twice and that the president did not accept it.

Sen. Carl Levin, the panel's ranking member, agreed that setting a timetable would be counterproductive and would "give an incentive to insurgents and jihadists to simply outlast us and would also increase the chances of civil war on our departure."

But the Michigan Democrat said that Iraqi leaders must be encouraged to meet deadlines for creating a new constitution. The Iraqis face an August 15 deadline to draft a constitution to be put before voters in October.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander in the Persian Gulf region as head of U.S. Central Command, said the insurgency did not appear to have lost strength.

"In terms of comparison from six months ago, in terms of foreign fighters, I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Abizaid said. "In terms of overall strength of the insurgency, I would say it is the same as it was."

Levin pointed out that Abizaid's testimony did not match Vice President Dick Cheney's recent assessment that the insurgency was in its "last throes." (Full story)

"I don't know if I would make any comment about that other than to say that there is a lot of work against the insurgency," Abizaid said.

He testified that he was encouraged by the progress in Iraq and Afghanistan and said that his troops supported the war.

"When my soldiers say to me and ask me the question whether or not they've got support from the American people or not, that worries me, and they're starting to do that," he said. "When the people we are training, Iraqis and Afghans, ask me whether we have the staying power -- that worries me, too."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, expressed concern about falling support for the war in his state.

"People are beginning to question. And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen. We have a chronic problem on our hands," Graham said.

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