Pentagon Defends U.S. Military Policy

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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, fielded questions Wednesday on the recent North Korean nuclear tests and the battlefield situation in Iraq — saying neither represented a setback for U.S. policy.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A few hours after President Bush's news conference today, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met reporters at the Pentagon. At his side was General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, just back from that country. Both men dismissed a study saying about 650,000 Iraqi civilians may have died since the U.S. invasion although General Casey said he had not yet seen the report.

General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army, Iraq): That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I have not seen a number higher than 50,000, and so I don't give that much credibility at all.

NORRIS: The two were also asked about how the military might be called on to respond to North Korea's nuclear tests.

NPR's John Hendren is at the Pentagon and joins us now. General Casey's presence obviously puts the emphasis on Iraq, so what did they have to say about the reports of far-higher civilian deaths?

JOHN HENDREN: Well, like the president, Casey dismissed those reports, saying that they were far higher than the numbers that he had heard. In general, he said that Iraq was a difficult and complex place and that violence and progress were coexisting in Iraq. Those sounded like talking points, because I'm told he said the same thing to some military analysts yesterday. But the poll does have credibility among pollsters. John Zogby of Zogby Research was on CNN earlier, and he said I can't vouch for it 100 percent, but I will vouch for it 95 percent.

NORRIS: Moving on to North Korea, John, what sense do we have that this region has moved now to the top of the Pentagon's planning list?

HENDREN: Well, the Pentagon does have plans on the shelf for a war with Korea. But then again, that's not too telling, because it also has plans to invade every major potential adversary from Yemen to, and I'm guessing here, Venezuela.

But the current plans, military plans, for North Korea are dreadful. They involve either bombing the nuclear sites, some of which would be hard to find, or a naval blockade that is widely viewed as probably ineffective. And so Rumsfeld said the president is on the right path in pursuing diplomacy instead, and that's really what people are talking about here at the Pentagon.

NORRIS: Just to return to Iraq, today the chief of staff of the Army, Peter Schoomacher, said that the Army is planning for current troop levels to remain in Iraq through the year 2010. Is that surprising there at the Pentagon?

HENDREN: It's surprising that he said it. Schoomacher downplayed the significance of that number, and he said the Army has to use some numbers to plan with. And indeed, the Army has often used current numbers and projected them into the future. But this is a pretty long ways into the future. And it should be noted that in 2003, the Army was planning for significant reductions in future years, and they're no longer doing that.

NORRIS: And John, just quickly, Donald Rumsfeld has been in the news in recent days, chief target of criticism for U.S. policy in Iraq and continued calls for his resignation. Any change in attitude there at the Pentagon?

HENDREN: Characteristically, there has been no change. He asked who was to blame for the problems in Iraq, him or Casey, who was standing next to him, and after criticizing the question, as he often does, he said he bears some responsibility.

NORRIS: NPR's John Hendren speaking to us from the Pentagon. Thanks, John.

HENDREN: Thank you, Michele.

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