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Rumsfeld Denies He's Being Pushed Aside in Iraq Effort

October 09, 2003|John Hendren and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The White House and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld denied Wednesday that the Pentagon chief was being sidelined when the Bush administration revamped how it manages Iraq's reconstruction.

The attempt to play down possible frictions within the administration over Iraq policy came as the White House scrambled to contain rising public concern over American deaths in that country, launching a public relations offensive Wednesday intended to showcase what it calls significant progress there.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice played a central role in both efforts, assuming a higher profile in Iraq decision-making and opening the communications campaign with a speech defending the war and its aftermath.

"We now have hard evidence of facts that no one should ever have doubted," she told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday. "Let there be no mistake -- right up to the end, Saddam Hussein continued to harbor ambitions to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction and to hide his illegal weapons activities."

The drama over decision-making in Iraq began Friday when Rice sent Rumsfeld a one-page memo saying the National Security Council would exercise its authority to help oversee reconstruction.

Administration officials said the note in effect ended a hands-off policy that allowed Rumsfeld's Pentagon managers to make the decisions.

Rumsfeld acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that he was not consulted on the decision to give Rice and the State Department a larger role by creating a new Iraq Stabilization Group, saying he learned of it when the memo arrived Friday.

Those comments triggered speculation that the defense secretary was being pushed aside by an administration determined to make faster progress in the complex task of rebuilding Iraq. But on Wednesday, Rumsfeld sought to dispel that impression.

"I just am really quite surprised about all of this frufrah about this memo," Rumsfeld told reporters at a mountain resort here, where he was attending a NATO meeting. "It's just a little, short, one-page memo."

The White House, too, attempted to play down the revamp Wednesday, insisting that the Pentagon remained the lead agency on Iraq.

"As we accelerate our efforts ... this is a way to strengthen our assistance to the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority in their efforts in Iraq," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

McClellan denied that creation of the Iraq Stabilization Group -- which includes undersecretaries from the departments of Defense, State and Treasury as well as officials from the CIA and others with some policymaking authority -- was an effort to sideline Rumsfeld. And in response to a reporter's question, he said President Bush "absolutely" had complete confidence in the defense secretary.

"He's doing an excellent job," McClellan said.

The reorganization has been interpreted as a bid by the White House to end feuding between the Pentagon and the State Department over Iraq and speed up the pace of reconstruction by giving the State Department a bigger role. The top U.S. occupation official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, reports to Rumsfeld.

But Rumsfeld said it was natural that as rebuilding progressed, the State Department would play a larger role.

"It apparently was discussed at the undersecretary or the assistant secretary level, and not at my level. It need not have been. It is not a problem or an issue," Rumsfeld said. "We know that that activity, as it matures, will migrate over at the Department of State. I mean, that's how -- where ambassadors report. And eventually, it will arrive there at some point."

Rumsfeld appeared to lose patience as reporters peppered him with questions about the reorganization.

"I think, with the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs and what's going on in California, one could find something more important than that," he said.

Establishment of the Iraq Stabilization Group comes as Bush's approval ratings are at their lowest level since he took office, with polls showing increasing public concern about his foreign policy leadership.

The move is at least the second reorganization of Iraq policymaking since the end of the war. Initially, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner led the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, but he was soon replaced by Bremer as head of a restructured Coalition Provisional Authority.

Rumsfeld was in Colorado for a two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting meant to showcase how the group is changing from a defensive alliance in Europe to a more flexible, fast-moving military force capable of responding to new global threats.

Military chiefs and defense ministers from the 19 member states, plus seven Eastern European nations set to join NATO next spring, gathered for an exercise to test NATO's ability to respond rapidly to a terrorist threat outside Europe. The exercise included decision-making under a scenario involving weapons of mass destruction.

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Hendren reported from Colorado Springs and Reynolds from Washington.

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