In a lively but polite give-and-take, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fielded questions Saturday from wives and other family members of Alaska-based soldiers whose combat tours in Iraq were abruptly extended just as they prepared to return home this month.
“It is something we don’t want to do,” Rumsfeld told several hundred family members who gathered in a gymnasium at nearby Ft. Wainwright, home of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. The unit’s deployment to Iraq was extended by up to four months to bolster U.S. firepower in the Baghdad area.
“But in this case we had to,” he added, referring to the decision made in late July to extend the 172nd.
Asked whether the Army was preparing another brigade to take over for the 172nd in case the intended improvements in Baghdad are not achieved by mid-December, Rumsfeld said he could make no promises.
“I wish I had a magic wand and the power to say yes. I don’t,” he said. “I will do everything in the world I can do to see that they are not extended beyond the 120 days.”
Reporters, including five who traveled with Rumsfeld from Washington, D.C., were not permitted to cover his meeting with the family members, which lasted about an hour. But a wife who made a video tape of the event showed it to reporters afterward.
One wife asked Rumsfeld why the 172nd was doing house-to-house searches in Baghdad instead of the kinds of combat operations they are trained to perform. Rumsfeld disputed her assertion, saying that 95 percent of the house-clearing operations are being done by Iraqi troops.
‘These people are volunteers’
In an interview during his flight to Fairbanks, Rumsfeld said he saw no reason for the soldiers or their families to be angry at him.
“I don’t put it in that context,” he said. “These people are all volunteers. They all signed up. They all are there doing what they’re doing because they want to do it. They’re proud of what they do. They do it very, very well.”
The Pentagon chief was meeting privately later Saturday with 172nd Stryker Brigade families at Fort Wainwright, the unit’s home base. Rumsfeld’s aides said they expected as many as 600 people to attend and to have a chance to ask questions.
Reporters who traveled with Rumsfeld from Washington, D.C., were to be excluded from the session.
Asked why reporters would not be permitted to cover the event, Rumsfeld at first replied, “I don’t have any idea. I haven’t addressed the subject.” Later he said he makes it a practice to make all family meetings private.
Group wants troops withdrawn
A newly formed Alaska chapter of the Military Families Speak Out group issued a statement in Fairbanks saying it would make a public call for the Bush administration to bring home the 172nd and all other U.S. troops. It quoted Jennifer Davis of Anchorage, whose husband is a member of the 172nd.
“I am totally frustrated, disappointed and heart broken,” she said in the statement. “Just when I thought we were going to be able to resume a ‘normal’ life and when I thought the nightmare was over, the nightmare was extended.”
Rumsfeld said in the in-flight interview that the 172nd Brigade was an effective force during its nearly one-year deployment to the Mosul area in northern Iraq. He said the soldiers performed well in the short time since they shifted to Baghdad as part of an effort by U.S. commanders to quell sectarian killings.
“They did a terrific job in Mosul and they’re already doing an excellent job in Baghdad,” said Rumsfeld, indicating that commanders chose to extend the 172nd Brigade in part because of their extensive experience in Iraq.
‘I’d love to be Santa Claus’
The brigade’s tour was extended by up to 120 days, bringing them close to a Christmas return date. Rumsfeld said he would make no promises that the full brigade would be back home by the holidays.
“I’d love to be Santa Claus. I’m not,” he said in an interview with reporters during a flight to Fairbanks.
If it turned out that by December, U.S. commanders in Iraq felt they needed an unscheduled infusion of troops, “our first choice obviously would be to have them be someone other than the people we just extended,” Rumsfeld said. “But I’m not going to get into the promises business. That isn’t my style.”
On Sunday, Rumsfeld and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov planned to participate in a ceremony in Fairbanks for a memorial of the Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease program. During World War II, nearly 8,000 U.S. warplanes were flown to Fairbanks by U.S. pilots and turned over to Soviet pilots for use against the Germans.
Rumsfeld also was to tour the missile defense site at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, where interceptor rockets in underground silos are being developed for potential use in the event of a long-range missile attack on U.S. soil. A test of portions of the system is scheduled to be held in a few days.