WASHINGTON — President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took on congressional critics of their war policy Sunday, saying that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq until the Baghdad government was ready to take charge, and that those calling for a hasty withdrawal were jeopardizing the safety of Americans abroad and at home.
"An immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq will only strengthen the terrorists' hand in Iraq and in the broader war on terror," Bush told reporters in Beijing.
Rumsfeld agreed with his boss' assessment, telling CNN's "Late Edition" -- one of four shows on which he appeared Sunday -- that a withdrawal anytime soon "would be a terrible thing for our country and for the safety of our people."
The president's comments came at the end of his weeklong visit to Asia, during which he and members of his administration were dogged by increasingly combative questions about Iraq as approval ratings for Bush and his war policy continued to sink.
On Thursday, a respected pro-military Democratic lawmaker said he no longer supported the war policy and called for the U.S. to begin a phased withdrawal of troops, which would leave only a rapid "reaction force" in the region.
The comments by Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania were seen as a particularly damaging blow for the administration, given the decorated Marine Corps veteran's ties to the military over his 31-year congressional career. The White House and congressional Republicans sparked a furor late last week by leveling attacks on him.
But during an informal meeting with reporters in Beijing on Sunday after his series of talks with Chinese leaders, Bush praised Murtha.
"Congressman Murtha is a fine man, a good man who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman," Bush said. "And I know the decision to call for an immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way."
Bush also went out of his way to call the Iraq question a "worthy debate" in which even patriotic Americans could disagree.
"People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," he said. "I heard somebody say, well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought."
Murtha, whom the White House compared in a statement Thursday to left-wing filmmaker and Bush critic Michael Moore, continued to press his case Sunday, predicting on NBC's "Meet the Press" that U.S. forces would leave Iraq before next year's congressional elections as more members of the House and the Senate bowed to mounting pressure from their constituents.
Murtha also said he was "absolutely convinced we're making no progress" in Iraq.
The Baghdad government and its fledgling army are "going to let us do the fighting as long as we're there." Murtha added: "They'll have to work this out themselves. It's their country."
Despite their conciliatory rhetoric, Bush and Rumsfeld continued to characterize Murtha's call for withdrawal as dangerous, misguided and unsupported by the majority of Americans and their elected leaders in Congress.
Like Bush, Rumsfeld backed away from criticism of Murtha, specifically countering a freshman GOP congresswoman's comment on the House floor Friday that "cowards cut and run, Marines never do."
"He's not a coward, I'll tell you that," Rumsfeld said of Murtha on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Rumsfeld also said Murtha's public questioning of the overall U.S. war policy wasn't a bad thing, or unusual. "We had similar debates during World War II, during Korea, during Vietnam. It's always been so," Rumsfeld said. But "we also have to understand that our words have effects."
The Defense secretary contended that U.S. assistance has allowed Iraq to make great progress on military and political fronts in advance of the parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 15. Rumsfeld deflected repeated requests for specifics that could support his comments, declining to say how many Iraqi troops had officially met U.S. proficiency standards, the first step toward taking over the security effort.
In September, top U.S. generals said that 800 Iraqis, or one battalion, had met "Level One" U.S. standards -- meaning that they were ready to go into combat by themselves. About 29,000 Iraqis were at "Level Two," allowed by the Pentagon to lead operations only with U.S. support.
"In the two months since, how significantly have those numbers changed?" Rumsfeld was asked by "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace.
Rumsfeld did not answer, but said after Wallace's third attempt at the question that "the numbers are improving every single day." He also said U.S. forces had turned "something like 17 bases" over to Iraqi command, and that the Iraqis were in charge of one province and a large portion of Baghdad.