BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a surprise Christmas Eve visit to Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. troops Friday that they face a "determined and vicious enemy" that is likely to strike again and again in the run-up to next month's elections.
As if to punctuate Rumsfeld's remarks, insurgents blew up an explosives-laden fuel tanker in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood a few hours later, killing at least 12 and injuring more than 15. A huge fireball lit up the night sky and set several buildings afire along a residential strip that houses several embassies and politicians' homes.
"We are going to be faced from the shadows, from the side streets and with people who are using every conceivable time, test, way and tactic to make you suffer," Rumsfeld told more than 200 soldiers gathered at Camp Victory near Baghdad International Airport. "So there isn't any way that foreign troops—our troops, the coalition troops or any other troops from any other country—can provide security in this country. All we can do is contribute to security."
The deafening explosion in the Mansour section of the city occurred just before 10 p.m. and was followed by a fierce gun battle, witnesses said. Sarmad Mustafa, a 21-year-old student, said the blast "turned the dark of night into day."
American helicopters hovered overhead and a cluster of Iraqi police and national guardsmen arrived with U.S. armored vehicles to seal off streets leading to the scene.
The apparent suicide bombing capped a bloody week in which insurgents killed or wounded scores of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians in attacks on southern holy cities and in the dining hall of an American base in the northwestern city of Mosul.
The violent rebel campaign underscores the inability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to keep the country secure ahead of next month's parliamentary elections.
"Once again, we've seen the truth that terrorists can attack at any time, at any place, using any tactic," Rumsfeld told troops at Camp Victory. "It is physically impossible to defend in every place against every conceivable technique."
Still, he continued, they wouldn't face a battle they couldn't win. With Iraq's natural resources and educated population, the soldiers were helping to replicate what he described as a "breathtaking" success in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld's visit to the Army's 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, was the last stop in a whirlwind tour of Iraq's most troubled areas. He also visited the flashpoint city of Fallujah, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and Mosul, where a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured dozens in the mess hall of an American base Tuesday.
Christmas lights glittered from a palm tree and paper snowflakes fluttered in a chilly breeze outside the dining hall at Camp Victory, where soldiers underwent unusually thorough searches before entering the facility. Rumsfeld burst in, threw his hands in the air and said "Merry Christmas!" as troops cheered.
Rumsfeld, in a plastic apron and the 1st Cavalry's trademark black cowboy hat, served the troops fish and shrimp in batter, and delayed his departure to accommodate the throngs of soldiers who wanted their photos taken with him.
"It's great that he came here to visit, especially after what happened in Mosul," said Sgt. Keoki Pereira, 32, who persuaded Rumsfeld to make the "hang loose" hand gesture of his native Hawaii. "It's pretty amazing to see the secretary of defense coming here, even in this situation, to see what we go through every day."
After the excitement wore off, soldiers sat at crowded tables and discussed the week's violence and Rumsfeld's response. The defense secretary, they said, told them what they already knew: that the Iraqi insurgency is a smart, sophisticated enemy that monitors American forces and attacks their vulnerabilities.
The suicide bombing in Mosul, allegedly carried out by an Iraqi in uniform, only highlighted the mistrust many soldiers harbor toward their counterparts in the fledgling Iraqi security forces. With so much resentment from Iraqis, they said, it was impossible to tell who welcomed them as liberators from who targeted them as occupiers.
"Honestly, Mosul wasn't a surprise," said Spc. Drexell Freeman of Opelousas, La. "Iraqis are deceitful. The minute you get buddy-buddy with them, they're thinking of ways to stab you in the back. You're trying to help and they're always out to get you."
Several soldiers said Rumsfeld's remarks about Afghanistan were a "morale booster" that helped restore their optimism for the future of Iraq. They quickly pointed out that the 1st Cavalry was responsible for restoring water, sewage and orderly gasoline lines to several volatile parts of Baghdad.
"Afghanistan was a great victory for us," said 1st Lt. Crystal Lauver of Clearfield, Penn. "Iraq isn't yet, but it will be."
"People think when you're in Baghdad, you're an hour away from getting killed," added Capt. Greg Pavick, 33, of Johnstown, Pa. "It is dangerous. I don't refute that. But there is some good going on."
After his speech, Rumsfeld made a joking reference to the controversy sparked at a town hall meeting in Kuwait when a soldier who questioned him about the lack of proper armor for American troops in Iraq.
"Maybe I should answer questions," Rumsfeld said. "No, let's just sing `Jingle Bells.'"
The armor controversy hit home for Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Sanders of Lexington, Ky. His unit brought their armored vehicles from Texas and had to rig them in Kuwait with plywood and sand bags before driving into Iraq last March.
Sanders' job at Camp Victory includes distributing armored vehicles to other units. After a shortage, he said, more than 100 heavily armored trucks arrived in the past month. He said the 1st Cavalry, which polices all of Baghdad, is fully armored.
"We weren't given the equipment in Texas, we weren't given the equipment in Kuwait. We were given the equipment in Iraq," Sanders said. "But now I have 18 trucks, all up-armored and they're going to stay here in Iraq."
(Special Correspondents Omar Jassim and Yasser Salihee contributed to this report. Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Donald Rumsfeld
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Iraq blast