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Rumsfeld: Iraq's deterioration underestimated

Secretary defends reconstruction pace

Rumsfeld: "It feels like it's been about four years since the end of the conflict, and it was May 1st."

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A heckler interrupts U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the National Press Club in Washington.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States underestimated the degree to which the Iraqi infrastructure deteriorated under the regime of Saddam Hussein, a deterioration that has complicated postwar reconstruction of the country, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday.

"I don't think people really fully understood how devastating that regime was to the infrastructure of the country -- how fragile the electric system is, how poorly the water is being managed and the extent to which the people are being denied," Rumsfeld said in a speech at the National Press Club.

However, Rumsfeld, who just returned from a trip to Iraq, defended the pace of the reconstruction effort there, noting that key milestones -- such as establishment of a Cabinet, security forces, a central bank and a new currency -- have been reached much more quickly than they were in post-World War II Germany.

"I think the biggest difference is that we now have 24-hour news, and everyone is examining everything every second," he said. "It feels like it's been about four years since the end of the conflict, and it was May 1st."

Rumsfeld's speech was interrupted by a woman who hung a banner reading "Bloody Hands," over the balcony and shouted, "Your foreign policy is based on lies. The war in Iraq is unjust and illegal and the occupation of Iraq is immoral."

The heckler also shouted, "Bring the troops home now! ... Tell us when the troops are coming home!"

After that interruption, Rumsfeld noted that the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime has brought freedom of speech to Iraqis.

"People [in Iraq] are debating, people are discussing -- something they had not done for decades," he said. "Just four and a half months ago, that regime was still in place. It was still creating mass graves. ... It was still repressing thought and speech in that country, and that has ended. Those people are liberated."

Asked why U.S. intelligence did not have a better assessment of the true state of the infrastructure inside Iraq before the war, Rumsfeld said, "Resources are finite, and they were worrying about more important things."

Rumsfeld also said U.S. military commanders "to a person" have told him that additional U.S. troops are not needed in Iraq. There are now about 130,000 U.S. personnel in the country.

"What they want is what we're doing, and that is to increase the Iraqis involved in providing their own security," he said, noting that more than 55,000 Iraqis are participating in security operations.

Indeed, Rumsfeld told reporters that increasing the number of U.S. forces, rather than letting Iraqis assume responsibility for their own security, could actually be counterproductive.

"To the extent you are too heavy a footprint, you don't help them, you hurt them, because foreign forces in a country are an anomaly. They're not natural," he said. "And to the extent they're there, people tend to rely on them, and we don't want to create a reliance or a dependency."

Rumsfeld also said approval of a proposed new U.N. Security Council resolution will probably not result in the deployment of large numbers of forces from other countries to Iraq. However, it would give an international face to the effort and may encourage more countries to make financial contributions for reconstruction, he said.

While daily attacks against U.S. troops have left more of them dead in the postwar period than during major combat operations, Rumsfeld said the number of incidents targeting American forces has fallen, from about 25 a day across Iraq to about 15. (Full story) (Special Report: Coalition casualties, Interactive: U.S. troop deaths in Iraq)

Protesters interrupted Rumsfeld's speech at the National Press Club.
Protesters interrupted Rumsfeld's speech at the National Press Club.

"They involve very small numbers of people, and the forces are aggressively dealing with them," the secretary said. "The bulk of the time, the forces are engaged in fixing schools, digging wells, repairing hospitals ... doing medical assistance, dental assistance -- a whole host of things like that. (On the Scene: Walter Rodgers in Baghdad)

"Is it a tough situation? You bet it is. Is is going to take some time? Indeed, it is. It's going to take patience. It's part of the global war on terror, let there be no doubt."

Asked when U.S. forces would leave Iraq, Rumsfeld repeated the Bush administration's mantra that American troops would stay there as long as necessary but no longer. He also declined to speculate on whether efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan would require more money than the $87 billion figure for next year put forward Sunday by President Bush.

"I'm not in the budget business., The president has announced a number. I work for the president. If you want to know what I think of his number, I like it," Rumsfeld said.

He also said he still believes evidence of weapons of mass destruction will turn up in Iraq, despite the fact that no weapons have been found so far.

He was also asked to respond to a recent call from a leading House Democrat, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, that he and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, resign for mishandling the Iraqi war and reconstruction.

"I guess the short answer is that I serve at the pleasure of the president, " Rumsfeld said.

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