Thursday, August 03, 2006

Rumsfeld, in reversal, to attend public hearing

Rumsfeld, in reversal, to attend public hearing
By Will Dunham and Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a reversal, the Pentagon on Wednesday said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will testify publicly on the Iraq war to a key Senate committee after Democrats blasted him for planning to bypass it because of a busy schedule.

Earlier in the day, Rumsfeld told reporters he would not attend a morning Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, but would have a closed briefing for all senators along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and two generals later on Thursday.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat who led the charge against Rumsfeld, called his "11th hour decision to reverse course ... the right one."

She said senators and the American people "should hear directly from the top civilian leader at the Pentagon, the person most responsible for implementing the President's military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Rumsfeld, known for frosty relations with some lawmakers, had denied he was reluctant to face senators in public, and suggested critics were playing politics.

Democrats, trying to regain control of Congress from Republicans in elections in November, have made Rumsfeld a prime target of criticism over the handling of the three-year-old Iraq war.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada fired off a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee urging him to call on Rumsfeld to appear in the open hearing.

Rumsfeld has not testified publicly to the Armed Services Committee since February. Instead of Rumsfeld, Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the top U.S. military officer, were set to testify.

Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, the committee's chairman, and the panel's top Democrat wrote Rumsfeld on July 26 "to confirm your invitation to testify" at the hearing on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Warner said on Wednesday "at no time did he refuse to come up here," adding the Senate Republican leadership preferred having Rumsfeld, Rice, Pace and Abizaid brief in private.

At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said that "my calendar was such that to do it in the morning ... would have been difficult."

Without mentioning anyone by name, Rumsfeld added, "Let's be honest. Politics enters into these things. And maybe the person raising the question is interested in that." Clinton is a possible 2008 Democratic presidential candidate.

Democrats have used these committee hearings to savage Rumsfeld. At a 2005 hearing, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked Rumsfeld, "Isn't it time for you to resign?"