Rumsfeld Dismisses Notion of Civil War in Iraq

At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejects suggestions that Iraq is engulfed in a civil war but predicts that there will be additional bursts of sectarian violence in the weeks ahead. Rumsfeld also claims that Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements have infiltrated Iraq.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

A sharp critique of the press today from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He accused the media of exaggerating the level of violence in Iraq over the past two weeks and fanning talk of civil war. Rumsfeld said he does not believe Iraq has spiraled into civil war despite a wave of sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis. Hundreds of people have been killed since the bombing of an important Shiite mosque last month.

NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O: Bush administration officials have repeatedly rejected suggestions that a civil war is imminent. At a Pentagon briefing today, Secretary Rumsfeld offered his assessment of the situation two weeks after the attack on the Golden Dome Mosque in the city of Samarra.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I do not believe they're in a civil war today. There's always been a potential for a civil war. That country was held together through a repressive regime. It was held together through force and viciousness, and that's gone.

HARA: But the U.S. ambassador to Iraq has a bleaker view of the situation. According to the Los Angeles Times, Zalmay Khalilzad told the newspaper in an interview that Washington opened Pandora's box by invading Iraq in 2003. Khalilzad said that Iraq is extremely vulnerable right now, with the potential for a full-blown war. Rumsfeld acknowledged that the violence of the last 2 weeks has delayed efforts to form a unified government in Iraq, but he declared that the situation is not nearly as dire as it's been portrayed by the news media. In fact, Rumsfeld accused the media of inaccurate and exaggerated reporting.

RUMSFELD: Interestingly, all of the exaggeration seemed to be on one side. It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq.

HARA: General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stood next to Rumsfeld during the briefing. He told reporters that the new Iraqi police and armed forces remain loyal to the central government. Pace said he is convinced that Iraqis do not want civil war.

PETER PACE: I believe they looked into the abyss and have said this is not where we want to go.

HARA: The Pentagon has long warned of meddling in Iraq by neighboring countries, especially Iran and Syria. Today Rumsfeld leveled this accusation against Tehran.

RUMSFELD: They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq. And we know it. And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment.

HARA: And Rumsfeld went further. He said that the people being sent into Iraq are members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

RUMSFELD: I don't think we could consider them religious pilgrims.

HARA: Rumsfeld said he believes the Iranians were sent into Iraq by the government in Tehran, but he offered no details nor evidence to support the allegation. The Pentagon has complained in the past that weapons and explosives were being transported across the Iranian border into Iraq, but this is the first time that the Defense Department has accused Iranian forces of meddling in Iraq's affairs. Iranian interference in Iraq always has been a matter of concern for the U.S., but even more so given the past two weeks of violence between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites. Iran is predominately Shia.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, at the Pentagon.

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