WASHINGTON — The United States was not prepared for the extent of hostility against U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, in part because prewar intelligence was "all over the lot" on what to expect after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in an hour-long interview on MSNBC's "Hardball" Thursday night.
Yet, despite the bloodiest month in terms of U.S. casualties since the war began, Rumsfeld said he had no regrets about ousting Saddam.
"If you are a historian, you know that throughout the history of our country, there have always been things that need to be done where lives are put at risk," Rumsfeld said. "And this country wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t been willing to put their lives at risk."
American military deaths on Friday raised to 128 the number of U.S. troops killed in combat in April. At least 738 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Up to 1,200 Iraqis also have been killed this month.
A year ago Saturday, under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished," President Bush had declared an end to "major combat" in Iraq. And Rumsfeld admitted his surprise about the extent of the subsequent Iraqi resistance.
"I guess if you asked me a year ago, I would have expected that the word 'occupation' and the negative aspects of that would not have been assigned to us to the extent it has been," Rumsfeld said.
Asked by MSNBC's Chris Matthews whether the Pentagon thought it would be able to quickly install a new government after Saddam's fall, Rumsfeld said that he, for one, did not believe that and that the intelligence was unclear.
"Intelligence was all over the lot on that, and our intelligence people had a great many contacts, both with Sunni and Shia. And the information was mixed," Rumsfeld said. "And it turns out, after the fact, that it was not perfect. As you know, most intelligence is not perfect."
Rumsfeld also denied reports that members of the Defense Department had fed the White House different intelligence — highlighting Saddam's weapons program and claiming links between Baghdad and al-Qaida — than what the Central Intelligence Agency had produced.
"They were not developing intelligence. They were not creating intelligence. They were reviewing intelligence that had been established by other people."
Rumsfeld told "Hardball" that there has been a higher "level of resistance than I thought (before the war). Absolutely."
However, he also said that before the U.S. invasion he knew of "35 different things that could go wrong" with the occupation.
"And no question, [Bush] worried through all of those issues in a very thoughtful and probing way," Rumsfeld said.
The defense secretary blamed much of the anti-U.S. resistance on the Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq, saying that concerns they were being excluded in the plans for the interim Iraq government led to fierce resistance to U.S. forces in some Sunni areas, especially in the "Sunni triangle," north and west of Baghdad.
Sunnis had dominated Saddam's government even though Shiites make up a majority of Iraq's population.
The Sunni hostility to the United States has coalesced around the city of Fallujah, where U.S. forces are engaged in a bloody standoff with insurgents.
Rumsfeld declined to offer his formula to resolve the three-week crisis, saying it was a decision for commanders on the ground.
"Well, there’s no question that, for success in Iraq, you can’t have a city taken over by a bunch of terrorists and the former regime elements and have that persist over a sustained period of time," Rumsfeld said. Video: Did Rumsfeld advise the president to go to war?
"The Marines on the ground are the ones that are making those judgments," Rumsfeld said. "And that’s why they calculated that it’s in our interests to do it the way they’re doing it and to have these discussions with the Sunni tribal leaders."
Marines went into Fallujah to find those responsible for the March 31 killing and mutilation of four American contract workers, whose bodies were burned and dragged through the streets.
However, the United States has been under intense pressure from the United Nations, its international partners and its Iraqi allies to end the bloodshed, in which hundreds of Iraqi civilians are believed to have died.
Rumsfeld defended the oft-criticized decision by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army last year, saying the bulk of the army had already "disappeared. It was gone."
"So I think there’s kind of a myth — the facts — certain things, myths arise and people then repeat them over and over and over again, even though they’re inaccurate," Rumsfeld said.
Asked whether Bush had directly asked Rumsfeld whether the United States should go to war with Iraq, the defense chief said the president didn't need to ask because he knew Rumsfeld's position that ousting Saddam was in the interests of U.S. national security.
"He clearly asked us, 'Could we win?' I said, obviously, that the military are sure that they can prevail in that conflict, in terms of the changing of regime," Rumsfeld told Matthews. "... But his point was, [Bush] said, 'I knew where Rumsfeld was.' So he didn’t need it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.