WASHINGTON, Apr 19 (Reuters) About a week after the first pictures surfaced of US forces abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail, a senator asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld what he had to say to people demanding his resignation.
''Needless to say, if I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute,'' Rumsfeld told South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham during a May 2004 Senate hearing. ''I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it.'' It was neither the first nor the last time critics have howled for Rumsfeld's resignation.
With US President George W Bush firmly backing him again, Rumsfeld appears to have weathered the latest storm -- six retired generals demanding his ouster and accusing him of disregarding military advice, ruling by intimidation and making strategic blunders.
Pentagon officials, however, privately are braced for the possibility of more retired generals voicing criticism.
Some defense analysts say this flap -- following so many others including prisoner abuse scandals, questions over armor for US troops, allegations of botching the Iraq occupation and failing to anticipate the insurgency -- has undermined Rumsfeld's effectiveness as the 3-year-old Iraq war drags on.
''An invisible line has been crossed, and the decline in Rumsfeld's tenure has now begun,'' said Lexington Institute defense analyst Loren Thompson. ''He has gradually alienated each of his core constituencies, including the Congress, the media, the think tanks, the defense industry and now much of the officer corps.'' ''It's not hard to see where this story ends -- he won't be effective in office. He's losing his ability to execute his agenda,'' Thompson said.
The 73-year-old Rumsfeld was also defense secretary under President Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977. He is one of the longest serving Pentagon chiefs, trailing only Vietnam War era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (1961-1968) and President Ronald Reagan's choice Caspar Weinberger (1981-1987).
Some analysts had expected Bush to replace Rumsfeld in his second term, which began in January 2005.
'STAYED TOO LONG' ''No secretary of defense who has ever stayed more than one term has ever turned out well. McNamara and Weinberger, both if they had left at the end of their first term would have gone down in history much differently,'' said Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense under Weinberger.
Weinberger was indicted on felony charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with Reagan's second-term Iran-contra scandal. McNamara's reputation was tarred by the Vietnam War.
''And here's Rumsfeld,'' added Korb, now with the Center for American Progress think tank. ''Among other things, he just stayed too long.'' Heritage Foundation defense analyst James Carafano praised the way Rumsfeld has responded to the criticism of the six generals, who include two who commanded Army divisions in Iraq and one who headed the training of Iraqi security forces.
Rumsfeld brushed off the demands for his resignation but opted not to get into a messy point-by-point debate with the generals.
''It's perfectly possible to come into this department and preside and not make choices, in which case people are not unhappy, until about five years later when they find you haven't done anything and the country isn't prepared,'' Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing yesterday.
''The president's behind him,'' Carafano said. ''If he left tomorrow, (deputy defense secretary) Gordon England would be secretary of defense, and defense policies and what we do in Iraq would look exactly the same.'' REUTERS SC PM0146