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Rumsfeld Praises Servicemembers at Fort Bliss

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

EL PASO, Texas, Aug. 24, 2004 – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped by this west Texas city Aug. 23 to thank Fort Bliss soldiers for their service during the war against terrorism.

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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gestures to make a point to reporters Aug. 23 during a news conference held outside the Fort Bliss headquarters in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore

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Rumsfeld said he and the U.S. public are deeply appreciate and grateful for the valor and service of America's servicemembers.

"I came here to say 'thank you,'" the secretary told the troops, noting his thanks "come from the heart." Fort Bliss is home to the Army's Air Defense Artillery Center, commanded by Maj. Gen. Michael A. Vane.

Rumsfeld told the Fort Bliss troops that earlier in the day he'd met with President Bush to discuss defense matters at the commander in chief's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

In a question-and-answer session, Rumsfeld acknowledged to the Fort Bliss troops that he didn't know exactly when U.S. servicemembers would be able to come home for good from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The situation on the ground has to determine" when U.S. troops can leave, Rumsfeld explained, noting that U.S. and coalition forces ran al Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban out of Afghanistan and deposed a vicious dictator in Iraq.

A "very good start" has been made in Iraq, Rumsfeld pointed out, noting that Iraqi schools and hospitals have reopened since Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Yet although such success stories abound in Iraq, Rumsfeld acknowledged, "we're getting people shot at, and wounded, and killed."

About 100,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped to take over the country's security needs, Rumsfeld noted, with another 100,000 slated for similar training.

After Iraqi security forces have demonstrated that they can stand on their own, Rumsfeld explained, then American forces would leave Iraq.

"Our task is to get them on a path (so) that they can maintain security in that country," the secretary said.

Right now, though, there's still a need for U.S. troops in Iraq, Rumsfeld noted, pointing to the current situation in the Iraqi city of Najaf, where radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers still defy the interim Iraqi government's directive to disband and leave a holy shrine.

The Najaf situation has become a confusing seesaw for military members, diplomats and journalists alike, Rumsfeld said, because Sadr "is saying one thing one minute, another thing another minute." Meanwhile, Rumsfeld said, U.S. and coalition forces continue to put pressure on Sadr's militia in Najaf.

The bottom line, the secretary noted, is that the interim Iraqi government recognizes "that it cannot have a chunk of its country run by militias and terrorists."

While he said it's "not knowable" when the U.S. military will depart Iraq, Rumsfeld vowed to put that country on a path to democracy. U.S. troops will leave Iraq "when the coalition is able to transfer over security responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces," Rumsfeld explained. "We are putting a full-court press on to do that at as fast a pace as they are institutionally capable of doing it."

After his talk with Fort Bliss troops, Rumsfeld met with journalists outside the post's headquarters, where he reiterated his often-stated belief that there's no need for a return to military conscription.

Answering a reporter's query on the subject of reinstating the draft, Rumsfeld replied, "There's absolutely no need for the United States of America to go back to a draft." And if the United States ever did reinstate conscription, Rumsfeld declared, that "would be a big mistake."

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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
Army Maj. Gen. Michael A. Vane, Commander, Army Air Defense Artillery Center

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Fort Bliss, Texas

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld thanks an assembly of more than 1,000 soldiers and Marines for their service during an Aug. 23 visit to Fort Bliss, Texas. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore  
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