Rumsfeld disputes report that U.S. wants long-term access to bases
Stresses no plans to 'occupy' Iraq
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday he and other senior administration officials have had "zero discussion" about the Pentagon maintaining access to four military bases in Iraq as part of a long-term military relationship with whatever new Iraqi government emerges in the post-Saddam era.
The defense secretary strongly disputed a newspaper story in The New York Times over the weekend, which said the Pentagon wanted use four bases in Iraq well into the future. Rumsfeld said those bases are being used now by coalition forces for humanitarian and stabilization efforts, but he said that was the extent of any plans for the bases.
"The impression that's left around the world is that we plan to occupy the country, we plan to use their bases over the long period of time, and it's flat false," Rumsfeld said at Monday's Pentagon briefing. "We went in there to change a regime, we went in there to find weapons of mass destruction, we went in there to stop them from threatening their neighbors, and we have said precisely what we're there for, and it's not what that article says."
While Rumsfeld was forceful and animated in his denunciation of the newspaper article, he did not explicitly rule out any U.S. interest in such a military relationship -- although he described it as unlikely.
"The likelihood of it seems to be so low that it does not surprise me that it's never been discussed in my presence," Rumsfeld said, stressing that the article gave the "inaccurate and unfortunate" impression that the United States wants to set up some kind of permanent presence in Iraq.
With much of the Arab world scrutinizing how the United States handles the reconstruction of Iraq, the Bush administration is sensitive to suggestions that it is anything but a "liberator" for the Iraqi people. Almost daily, various administration officials stress that it will be up to the Iraqi people to decide what kind of government and future they will have now that the government of Saddam Hussein is gone.
"We don't plan to function as an occupier," Rumsfeld said.
At the same time, the administration has also stressed that the government must embrace democratic principles with safeguards for free speech, a free press and freedom of religion.
Asked if the United States would support an Islamic republic -- similar to the kind of government in neighboring Iran -- Rumsfeld suggested the answer would be no.
"I don't think that I would characterize what's going on in Iran as a democratic system," Rumsfeld said. "I don't think I would say that it fits the principles that I've just indicated. I think there are an awful lot of people in Iran who feel that that small group of clerics that determine what takes place in that country is not their idea of how they want to live their lives."
The defense secretary refused to comment about another New York Times story, which said that an Iraqi scientist had told an American military team that Iraqis destroyed chemical and biological weapons equipment days before the start of the war in Iraq.
Asked to confirm that story, Rumsfeld responded, "No."
Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described steady progress in the effort to stabilize Iraq, where some cities have experienced looting and a lack of services since the collapse of Saddam's regime.
While the major combat is over, some skirmishes continue. Myers said one Marine was wounded early Monday during a firefight on the Mosul airfield in the north.
"The Marines returned fire, but the attackers escaped and we have no idea who they were," Myers said.
Also in the north, U.S. special forces discovered a large weapons cache just south of Kirkuk. Myers described the cache as consisting of 40 different bunkers with artillery rounds and other munitions, including 50 surface-to-air missiles.