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White House rebuffs generals' calls for Rumsfeld to resign

WASHINGTON—The White House said Thursday that President Bush had confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as more retired military officers called for Rumsfeld to step down.

"The president believes that Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a very fine job during a challenging period in our nation's history," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

But the public expression of support didn't dampen what appeared to be a rising controversy and political headache for the Bush administration, as a fifth and sixth retired general came forward to demand that Rumsfeld resign.

In an interview broadcast on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," retired Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs said Rumsfeld created an "atmosphere of arrogance" at the Pentagon in which military advice on Afghanistan and Iraq was ignored or discounted.

As a result, Rumsfeld and his deputies miscalculated badly when it came to planning for how Iraq would be secured after Saddam Hussein's ouster, Riggs said.

"We just grossly underestimated the numbers of soldiers we would need," said Riggs, who spent 39 years in uniform, rose from private to lieutenant general and won a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in Vietnam.

Riggs was forced to retire in 2004 minus one star after he gave an interview in which he said the Army had been stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq and needed thousands more troops. He said Thursday that it was time for someone to lead the Pentagon who could work with the top military brass in a more practical manner.

"They only need the military advice when it fits their agenda," he said of Rumsfeld and his civilian deputies. "I think that's a mistake, and I think that's why he should resign."

Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr. told CNN on Thursday that he also thinks Rumsfeld should make way for new leadership. Swannack, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, told CNN that Rumsfeld "carries way too much baggage with him."

"There's nothing wrong with people having opinions," Rumsfeld said at a briefing Tuesday in response to a question about the criticism. "And I think one ought to expect that. When you're involved in something that's controversial, as certainly this war is, one ought to expect that."

A Pentagon spokesman said Thursday that he had nothing to add to what Rumsfeld had said.

Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong, who served as the deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command from 2000 to 2003 and had a chief role in planning the Iraq invasion, defended Rumsfeld on CNN on Thursday.

"Dealing with Rumsfeld is like dealing with a CEO," DeLong said. "When you walk into him, you've got to be prepared; you've got to know what you're talking about. If you don't, you're summarily dismissed. But that's the way it is, and he's effective."

But retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as the top military officer in the Middle East, kept up the pressure Thursday for Rumsfeld to step aside. Zinni first called for the defense secretary's ouster April 2.

Speaking on CNN, Zinni said Rumsfeld should be held accountable for a series of blunders in Iraq, including "throwing out 10 years' worth of planning" for a postwar occupation after Saddam's removal.

"We grow up in a culture where accountability, learning to accept responsibility, admitting mistakes and learning from them was critical to us," Zinni said. "Poor military judgment has been used throughout this mission."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste also has called for a change in Pentagon leadership. Batiste retired after he commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.

Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, in an essay in this week's Time magazine, castigated himself and other top generals for not being forceful enough in opposing the Iraq war, which he called an "unnecessary war" orchestrated by "zealots."

"The consequence of the military's quiescence was that a fundamentally flawed plan was executed for an invented war, while pursuing the real enemy, al-Qaeda, became a secondary effort," wrote Newbold, who served as the Pentagon's top operations officer until he retired in October 2002, partly out of opposition to the war.

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton was the first prominent retired general to say publicly that Rumsfeld should resign, in an opinion piece March 20 in The New York Times. He was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004.

"I think Rumsfeld has lost some important allies on (Capitol) Hill and in the senior military," said Charles Stevenson, who teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "But I don't see how the president would find it in his political interest to get rid of Rumsfeld unless he also wants to change policy and use Rumsfeld as kind of a scapegoat or whipping boy or whatever. But there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the president wants to blame anybody or change his mind."

Stevenson, the author of "SecDef: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense," said the only historical parallel to the current situation was during the Vietnam War, when several generals testified to Congress about their disapproval of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's bombing campaign in North Vietnam.

Wade Zirkle, the executive director of Vets for Freedom, a recently formed group of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, said the controversy could have a corrosive effect on morale in the ranks if it continued.

"I think the bottom line is that the troops on the ground want to win the war, and they want someone who is going to lead them to success," said Zirkle, a former Marine officer who served two deployments in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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