Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, with only days left in office, paid a surprise farewell visit to U.S. troops in Iraq this weekend, telling them the consequences of the war's failure would be "unacceptable."
The trip came as war policies he helped create are under scrutiny and as sectarian violence raged on the streets of Baghdad, with a fresh outburst of retaliatory attacks and clashes between Shiites and Sunnis.
Rumsfeld, casually dressed in a gray jacket and an open-collar shirt, traveled to several different U.S. bases in the country, shaking hands and joking with troops.
"For the past six years, I have had the opportunity and, I would say, the privilege, to serve with the greatest military on the face of the Earth," Rumsfeld, 74, said. He was speaking to more than 1,200 soldiers and Marines at al-Asad, a sprawling air base in western Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to discuss Rumsfeld's itinerary or schedule, other than to say he was traveling around Iraq on Sunday as well.
"He wants to keep the focus on the troops" and has not scheduled official meetings with U.S. commanders, although he is seeing them during his stops, Whitman said.
His visit came just days after a U.S. bipartisan commission said President Bush's policy in Iraq "is not working," and called for urgent policies to shift the focus to training Iraqis troops and withdrawing most U.S. combat troops by 2008.
Iraq President Jalal Talabani denounced the report on Sunday, saying it offered dangerous recommendations that would undermine his country's sovereignty and were "an insult to the people of Iraq."
The Kurdish leader was the most senior government official to take a stand against the Iraq Study Group report, which has also come under criticism from leaders of the governing Shiite and Kurdish parties.
He said the report "is not fair, is not just, and it contains some very dangerous articles which undermine the sovereignty of Iraq and the constitution."
He singled out the report's call for the approval of a de-Baathification law that could allow thousands of officials from Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath party to return to their jobs.
Talabani said the Iraqi government planned to send a letter to Bush "expressing our views about the main issues" in the report. He would not elaborate.
Meanwhile, gunmen attacked two Shiite homes in western Baghdad, killing nine men and seriously wounding another, police said Sunday.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, which police said occurred late Saturday in the mostly Sunni Arab al-Jihad neighborhood, but it apparently was in retaliation for a bold assault earlier in the day against Sunnis.
Witnesses said Shiite militiamen entered a Sunni enclave in Hurriyah _ a predominantly Shiite neighborhood _ after Sunnis warned the few Shiites living there to leave or be killed. Heavy machine gun fire was heard on Saturday and three columns of black smoke rose into the sky, the witnesses said on condition of anonymity, also out of concern for their own safety.
Omar Abdul-Sattar, a member of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party, alleged Sunday that an organized effort was under way in Hurriyah to force Sunnis out, and he accused Iraq's Shiite-led government of doing little to stop the violence.
Abdul-Sattar claimed that during the past five months, more than 300 Sunni families have been displaced from Hurriyah, more than 100 Sunnis killed and 200 wounded, and at least five Sunni mosques burned, along with houses and shops.
Clashes also erupted between Sunni and Shiite militants in Baghdad's mixed western Amil district, a policeman said. One Shiite militiaman was killed and six people _ five Sunnis and one Shiite _ were wounded, the officer said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. The fighting ended with U.S. and Iraqi forces rushing to the area to contain it, he said.
Baghdad has been suffering from a series of attacks aimed at driving Sunnis or Shiites out of neighborhoods of the capital where they form a minority.
At least 82 people were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq, including 59 bullet-riddled bodies that turned up in different parts of the capital.
Rumsfeld is one of the longest-serving defense secretaries in U.S. history and is the only person to have held the position twice. His replacement at the helm of the Pentagon, Robert Gates, is to be sworn in Dec. 18.
Rumsfeld, who did not meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during his visit, showed no sign on Saturday of backing down from his long-standing position that insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq must be crushed.
"We feel great urgency to protect the American people from another 9/11 or a 9/11 times two or three. At the same time, we need to have the patience to see this task through to success. The consequences of failure are unacceptable," he said.
But he kept the trip low-profile, with his office declining to discuss his itinerary or schedule in detail for security reasons. He did not bring along the large media contingent that usually travels with him on such occasions.
Associated Press writers Thomas Wagner and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Will Weissert at al-Asad and AP military writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
Source: AP News