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WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called any deadline for withdrawal from Iraq “a terrible mistake” that could undermine U.S. forces’ progress against the insurgency.

“It would throw a lifeline to terrorists, who in recent months have suffered significant losses in casualties,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “The timing must be condition based, and will depend on the extent to which ethnic factions reconcile … and the level of support from the international community.”

At the hearing, Senate Democrats had proposed using the threat of withdrawal to force the new Iraqi government to stick to its Aug. 15 deadline for drafting a new constitution.

Rumsfeld did not support the plan, but he said he would not support any extension of that deadline either. He said any delays in drafting the constitution could give insurgents momentum and threaten the lives of U.S. forces trying to stabilize Iraq.

Other defense officials echoed his opposition to a specific withdrawal date: Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said pulling out of Iraq too soon could be “catastrophic.”

Gen. George Casey, commander of the U.S. Multi-National Force in Iraq, said Iraqi military forces are making progress but still are not fully capable of taking over the country’s security.

However, when pressed Casey said specifics on how many units are battle-ready are classified. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., angrily responded that the military needs to make that information public.

“I think the American people deserve to know, since they are the ones paying for this conflict,” he said.

Casey also said attacks by insurgents overall are at roughly the same level as June 2004, which McCain characterized as grim news.

“The fact that after a year it is not significantly down is not encouraging,” he said.

Myers said the overall insurgent force has roughly the same manpower as six months ago, but coalition officials are finding a much higher percentage of foreign fighters entering Iraq.

He pointed specifically to Syria, saying that a country with such “tight borders” must have some knowledge of the problem but has failed to act so far.

During the hearing, Rumsfeld took issue with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy’s assessment that Iraq has become a “quagmire” and that U.S. forces are losing the fight.

“There is not a person at this table who agrees with you,” he told Kennedy. “… I think that idea is fundamentally inconsistent with the facts.”


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