MOSUL, Iraq -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a surprise Christmas Eve visit with the troops three days after the devastating attack on a U.S. military dining hall here, told soldiers he remained confident of defeating the insurgency and stabilizing Iraq, while noting that to some "it looks bleak."
"There's no doubt in my mind, this is achievable," Rumsfeld, who flew here under tight security, told a couple of hundred 1st Brigade soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division at their commander's headquarters. He promised them that later in life they will look back and feel pride at having contributed to a mission of historic importance.
"When it looks bleak, when one worries about how it's going to come out, when one reads and hears the naysayers and the doubters who say it can't be done, and that we're in a quagmire here," one should recall that there have been such doubters "throughout every conflict in the history of the world," he said.
Hoping to bring holiday cheer to the wounded soldiers and demonstrate compassion for the troops' sacrifices, Rumsfeld landed in pre-dawn darkness and immediately headed for a combat surgical hospital where many of the bombing victims were treated after Tuesday's lunchtime attack on a mess tent. The most seriously wounded already have been transferred to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.
During a brief stop at the 67th Combat Surgical Hospital, the defense chief presented a Purple Heart medal to Sgt. Chris Scott, who was wounded a day earlier. Rumsfeld also thanked the hospital's staff for their work in treating the dozens of wounded from Tuesday's attack at the mess hall, located near the base's airfield.
Out of concern for security, Rumsfeld's aides went to unusual lengths to keep his visit a secret prior to his arrival, with only a few reporters and one TV crew accompanying him on an overnight flight from Washington.
In an interview aboard the C-17 cargo plane that brought him to Mosul, Rumsfeld said he'd been planning to visit U.S. troops here long before Tuesday's deadly attack, believed to have been carried out by a suicide bomber.
The blast Tuesday at Forward Operating Base Marez was the deadliest single attack on a U.S. base in Iraq, striking as hundreds of soldiers sat down to lunch. Fourteen U.S. servicemembers were among the 22 killed.
The top U.S. general in northern Iraq said Thursday that the suicide bomber believed to have blown himself up in the dining tent was probably wearing an Iraqi military uniform. The episode has focused new attention on the ability of the U.S. military to protect its forces.
Security experts said improved screening of visitors and fewer large troop gatherings would help counter insurgents' tactics. Some individual bases have taken steps such as posting guards outside mess tents. Military officials discussed ways to increase security for troops in Iraq but announced no major shifts Thursday.
Rumsfeld's visit to Mosul came as U.S. Marines engaged in the heaviest fighting in weeks in Fallujah, the embattled city west of Baghdad, where U.S. troops waged bloody battles before clearing the city of most militants last month. At least three Marines were killed in combat that underlined how far the city and surrounding area are from being tamed as the United States and its Iraqi allies try to bring quiet before national elections Jan. 30.
In introducing Rumsfeld to his troops at Task Force Olympia headquarters, Brig. Gen. Carter Hall expressed gratitude for what he described as an outpouring of Christmas cards and other expressions of thanks and condolences from people across the United States since Tuesday's attack.
"It has been truly heartwarming," Hall said.
In his prepared remarks to Hall's soldiers, Rumsfeld alluded to Tuesday' attack and said he was inspired by the spirit shown by the wounded. He said he had visited other wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on Wednesday.
"It's amazing, what they say, how they feel about the work that's being done out here," he said.
Rumsfeld's stealth Christmas Eve trip came on the heels of several difficult weeks for the defense chief. Several high-profile Republicans have publicly criticized Rumsfeld, prompting President Bush to defend him Monday as a "good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes."
Speaking for himself on Wednesday, Rumsfeld said he stays awake at night worrying about soldiers and their families and shares their grief over lost loved ones.
"I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I, or others here, are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and are cared for in every way humanly possible," he said.
More than 1,300 Americans have been killed since the war with Iraq began in March 2003. The Pentagon is increasing the number of troops in Iraq to a wartime high of 150,000 in January to boost security for the Iraqi elections.
Rumsfeld has made several visits to troops in the region, most recently two weeks ago to a forward base in Kuwait. There, a handful of soldiers openly challenged him about inadequate equipment and long deployments. Rumsfeld cut off their complaints by saying, "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have."
He faced another firestorm earlier this week because he was not personally signing condolence letters to the families of dead soldiers, as the president does. Critics fault him for poor postwar planning and for a steadily growing list of problems, from failure to strangle the insurgency to prisoner abuses in Iraq and Guantanamo.
Rumsfeld's shoot-from-the hip style drew a popular following during the successful military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, but postwar problems in Iraq have soured his standing with Americans. Half now say he should resign even though the president just signed him on for his second-term cabinet.
At 72, Rumsfeld is the oldest defense secretary; he was also the youngest when he served for President Gerald Ford.