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Rumsfeld lauds CentCom work toward Iraq freedom

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Saturday compared the volatile situation in Iraq today to America's struggle to win independence from England in 1776.

"The task of taking a country that's lived for decades under a dictatorship and having it navigate toward something approximating representative government is a difficult task," Rumsfeld said in a telephone interview with the St. Petersburg Times from his home in Taos, N.M.

"It was difficult for the United States back in the 1700s," Rumsfeld said. "It was difficult for the Eastern European countries. It was difficult for Japan and Germany after World War II."

The Pentagon set up the brief interview with Rumsfeld as he prepared to travel to Tampa on Monday for a change-of-command ceremony at the U.S. Central Command, which has headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the CentCom commander who has directed back-to-back wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will hand over the reins to his deputy, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid.

Rumsfeld said the new commander will be taking over the most troubled and difficult region in the world.

CentCom's area of responsibility ranges from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, including Iraq and a large swath of the Middle East.

"The situation in Iraq is as the president's described, the major combat operations are behind us but the global war on terror continues," Rumsfeld said. "The remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein are still there and need to be dealt with, and that's what the men and women of the Central Command are doing every day, and doing well."

Almost daily, U.S. troops in Iraq are suffering casualties at the hands of enemy forces.

Rumsfeld, however, dismissed the idea that keeping the peace would be more difficult than fighting the war as "a cliche that doesn't have much substance."

"Anyone who thinks that the war is easy just doesn't understand, and they're both difficult, and all of us are aware of that," he said. "And, certainly the success in removing that vicious dictatorial regime was an impressive success."

With dedication and patience, Rumsfeld said democracy can flourish in Iraq because "the natural state of people is to be free, not to be repressed."

What the world must recognize, Rumsfeld said, is that "it will take time and it will take adaptation on the part of the people and that, ultimately, just as in Afghanistan, what evolves will be something that will be distinctive to each country."

While CentCom will get a change in leadership, its mission will not change, Rumsfeld said.

"The geography is the same. The countries are the same. The difficulties are the same," he said.

The secretary said that it will be a long time before the United States can declare victory in the war on terror.

"The nature of our world is such that it's going to require patience," Rumsfeld said. "It's going to require cooperation among something in excess of a hundred countries, and it's going to take all elements of national power to see that those kinds of threats are deterred and defended against."

Because of his ethnic and educational background, Abizaid is well-prepared to meet the challenge, Rumsfeld said. An Army man like Franks, Abizaid speaks Arabic and is of Lebanese descent. He studied in Jordan and holds a master's degree in Middle East studies from Harvard.

"John brings a terrific background and knowledge of the culture and the language and the circumstances in the Middle East and in that part of the world, and he'll do a tremendous job."

Rumsfeld and Franks have not always seen eye-to-eye. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Rumsfeld reportedly complained that Franks was not creative enough in his war plan for Afghanistan, and at one point even considered shifting control of the war to Washington.

But during the interview Saturday, Rumsfeld had nothing but praise for Franks. "Gen. Franks has done a superb job," he said.

Investigators from the General Accounting Office, or GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, plan to be at MacDill Air Force Base in mid July as part of a federal investigation into apartment rentals for military personnel.

The Times reported last month that military personnel on temporary duty at MacDill are paying rents far above market value for apartments. Federal investigators also plan to examine other MacDill projects as well, including the construction of Coalition Village II at CentCom.

Rumsfeld declined to comment on the federal investigation.

The change-of-command ceremony is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Monday at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, in Tampa. Franks, Abizaid, and Rumsfeld will be the featured speakers. Attendance is limited to invited guests and people with military identification.

_ Paul de la Garza can be reached at (813) 226-3375 or