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Rumsfeld sees Iraq benchmark dispute as politics

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Oct 26 (Reuters) US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld today dismissed as election-year politics differences between Washington and Baghdad over plans for Iraqis to take a bigger role in security.

He rejected suggestions that the process of setting benchmarks -- heralded by other US officials as progress toward handing control to Iraq -- was a formal one.

That put Rumsfeld at odds with the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who said on Tuesday Iraqi leaders had agreed to a schedule of political and security measures. In what has become a wrangling over terms, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has since denied he agreed to any timetables.

''It's a political season and everyone's trying to make a little mischief out of this, and make, turn it into a political football,'' Rumsfeld said.

''It is a process, not an event,'' said Rumsfeld, who has long been a lightning rod for Iraq war critics.

With President George W Bush's Republican Party at risk of losing control of the US Congress in November 7 elections -- largely because of voters' anger about unrelenting violence in Iraq -- the White House has pressed the Iraqi government to take on more responsibility.

Bush said yesterday that American patience over Iraq had limits and that the United States was pushing Iraqi leaders to ''take bold measures to save their country.'' Maliki's statements this week distancing himself from any US timelines have also appeared framed for his domestic audience, not US backers.

He told Reuters today that he could stamp out violence in six months if the Americans would give him more weapons and control over his forces.

''He's a politician,'' Rumsfeld said of Maliki's statements, adding that such remarks should be expected. ''We ought not to be surprised,'' he said. ''Now we just sit back and enjoy the democracy that's there.'' The White House blamed misleading media reports for saying Maliki rejected any sort of benchmarks or goals.

''The question he was asked was whether he agreed that there should be a timetable for withdrawal of troops in 18 months,'' spokeswoman Dana Perino said. ''That is something that Maliki has rejected as foolhardy, and that the president fully agrees with.'' Rumsfeld, in characteristically forceful yet jocular style, said reporters should ''just back off ... and relax'' when pressed about the benchmarks. He called ''mischievous'' the assertion that a general recently opened the door to troop increases.

Some were quick to criticize his words and tone.

''Today a secretary of defense, who should have been fired a long time ago, lost even greater touch with reality,'' said Massachusetts Sen John Kerry, the Democrats' losing candidate in the 2004 presidential election.

''Playing rhetorical word games and tweaking the tactics of a fundamentally flawed strategy will not get the job done,'' Kerry said.

Reuters DKS VP0250

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