Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday that anyone demanding deadlines for progress in Iraq should "just back off," because it is too difficult to predict when Iraqis will resume control of their country.
During a Pentagon news conference, an often-combative Rumsfeld said that while benchmarks for security, political and economic progress are valuable, "it's difficult. We're looking out into the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty."
"You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to come falling down if some date isn't met," Rumsfeld told reporters. "That is not what this is about."
His comments came less than two weeks before an election for control of Congress in which the Bush administration's conduct of the war has become a defining issue. They also came two days after a timeline was first announced by U.S. officials in Baghdad and underscored strains that have emerged between the two countries.
Bush administration officials said Tuesday that they and Iraqi leaders had agreed to craft guidelines toward progress in the country. The next day, Iraq's president disavowed them, saying the benchmarks merely reflected campaign season pressures in the U.S.
Noting that this is the political season, Rumsfeld also complained that critics and the media are trying to "make a little mischief" by trying to "find a little daylight between what the Iraqis say or someone in the United States says."
Rumsfeld often spars with reporters at Pentagon briefings, but Thursday his criticism of journalists seemed more pointed than usual.
"That's a rather accusatory way to put it," he said in response to one question about reducing troop levels.
Members of both parties say next month's congressional elections have become a referendum on the war in Iraq. Control of Congress could hinge on whether voters believe the Bush administration is on the right path or if there should be a change in course and significant reduction in U.S. troop levels there.
Rumsfeld's comments on the benchmarks further muddied the waters on whether there is agreement between the Iraqis and the U.S. on how quickly progress must be made there.
"They're still in discussions," he said.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced in Baghdad on Tuesday that Iraqi leaders had agreed that by the end of the year, they will have a plan that roughly lays out the times by which they want certain things accomplished.
The next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected Khalilzad's announcement and said his government had not agreed to anything. President Bush responded that al-Maliki was correct in saying mandates could not be imposed on Iraq, but said the United States would not have unlimited patience.
"You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it's complicated, it's difficult," Rumsfeld said regarding deadlines. "Honorable people are working on these things together. There isn't any daylight between them."
On Thursday, veteran U.S. diplomat David Satterfield told foreign reporters in Washington that "there is not a significant disagreement" with al-Maliki. "No one is imposing benchmarks," said Satterfield, who is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's coordinator for Iraq.
In fact, he said, the timelines, which apply also to economic progress, were worked out over a long period of discussions with Iraqi officials and they essentially are Iraqi benchmarks.
Echoing the tone used by President Bush on Wednesday, Rumsfeld also said it is "an enormously challenging process to defeat the terrorists" in Iraq. Bush had expressed disappointment with the progress in the war.
In other comments, Rumsfeld said the U.S. is considering whether it should speed up money planned for recruiting, training and equipping Iraqi security forces. Officials have said training Iraqis to take over security is key to withdrawing U.S. and other coalition forces.
Since 2004, the U.S. government has earmarked $11.3 billion for assistance to the Iraqi security forces.
"We intend to increase their budgets" as well as their capabilities, Rumsfeld said, and officials will help make the improvements more quickly. He did not cite any figures, however.
His press secretary, Eric Ruff, said a review of their needs is under way.