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Rumsfeld: Situation in Iraq 'exaggerated' by media

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he doesn't believe Iraq is in a civil war.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged Tuesday the potential for civil war in Iraq but slammed the media for "exaggerated" reports about the security situation following recent violence between religious factions.

Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon that he thought the news coverage since the February 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Iraq had been filled with inaccurate information that would inflame the situation there.

He based his comments on remarks made Friday by U.S. Army Gen. George Casey, the top-ranking U.S. military official in Iraq.

"From what I've seen thus far, much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation, according to General Casey," Rumsfeld said. "The number of attacks on mosques, as he pointed out, had been exaggerated. The number of Iraqi deaths had been exaggerated."

Much of the sectarian violence that has followed the bombing of the Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra has pitted Shiites vs. Sunnis.

On Friday, Casey said the military had confirmed about 30 mosque attacks and about 350 civilian deaths. CNN and other media outlets, citing local officials, have reported more than 100 mosque attacks and at least 500 deaths during the same time.

"Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side," he said. "It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq."

Some Iraqi and U.S. officials have worried about the possibility of civil war flaring in Iraq. President Bush, for example, said last week that Iraqis need to choose between "chaos" and "unity."

Reporters asked Rumsfeld about a Los Angeles Times story in which U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that "the potential is there now for sectarian violence to become a full-blown civil war."

The defense secretary said, "I certainly am not going to try to disagree with it. There's always been a potential for that."

But, he added, he does not "believe they're in a civil war today."

Rumsfeld reiterated Casey's stance that the "levels of violence" are similar to the weeks before the Golden Dome mosque attack. He went on to praise Iraqi army and police units, which he said have taken the security lead and performed well during recent weeks.

Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that Iraqi security forces "are loyal to the central government" and have been protecting Iraqis and their religious sites.

"You're seeing all of the things you would want to see to preclude the kind of things that would lead to civil war." He said Iraqis have "looked into the abyss and have said, 'This is not where we want to go. We want to have calm. We want to have a peaceful future.' "

Rumsfeld did acknowledge that violence is slowing Iraq's progress and that militias pose problems for the government.

He said the terrorist group al Qaeda "has media committees" and tutors people on how to "manipulate" news organizations.

"Now I can't take a string and tie it to a news report and then trace it back to an al Qaeda media committee meeting. I'm not able to do that at all," he said.

"We do know that their goal is to try to break the will; that they consider the center of gravity of this not to be in Iraq, because they know they can't win a battle out there; they consider it to be in Washington, D.C., and in London and in the capitals of the Western world."

Iranian troops in Iraq?

Both officials said Iran, a largely Shiite nation, is trying to exert its influence on its neighbor to the west.

Rumsfeld claimed Iran was sending "Iranian Quds-force type people," or a division of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, into Iraq.

"They're currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq," he said. "And we know it. And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment. "

Rumsfeld said he suspected Iran was backing the military forces. Revolutionary Guard-type forces don't "go milling around willy-nilly, one would think," he said.

Pace added the U.S. military believes some of the homemade bombs used in Iraq "are traceable back to Iran."

U.S. examining troop strength

Rumsfeld said the United States had fewer troops in Iraq --- 132,000 -- than during the December elections and noted that future reductions will depend on the level of violence.

"We'll let this settle down and we see where we are," he said.

"We're adding some people to train and equip and to embed with the police. And at the same time, we're taking other people out," he said.

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