ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (AP) – In a cramped war room below deck, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Saturday joined 18 of his counterparts from an unusual collection of U.S. partners in the terrorism fight in discussing the way ahead in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a hot and hazy day in the central Persian Gulf, Rumsfeld thanked the defense chiefs for their support. They also held a live, two-way video teleconference from the aircraft carrier with Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Casey described the U.S. goal of bringing all of Iraq under friendly control.

The unannounced session was held amid mounting concern in some quarters that the insurgency in Iraq is so widespread and violent that full and fair elections in January might not be able to go on as scheduled.

Some progress toward ending the violence in Baghdad’s Sadr City was reported on Saturday. Also, negotiations with tribal leaders in the restive city of Fallujah were under way.

Rumsfeld began the meeting by noting the milestone elections in Afghanistan and stressing that it was achieved despite the kind of doubt that some now express for Iraq’s prospects.

“Throughout this entire process,” he said, referring to the drive toward democracy in Afghanistan, “there have been people who said this could not happen. There are always naysayers and doomsayers and people who are faint of heart. But the people who have been determined and steadfast have been proved correct.”

The rest of the session was closed to reporters. Rumsfeld’s spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said afterward that Casey explained in general terms the U.S.-Iraqi plan to use a combination of negotiations and military force to break the insurgents’ grip on Fallujah and other important cities before the elections.

“He laid out the idea that he and the Iraqis have worked on this together,” Di Rita said.

Iraq’s defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, expressed optimism about his country’s future, Di Rita said, and was “clearly proud of how they’re doing.”

The defense ministers had the unusual experience of landing on the carrier in a C-2 twin-engine turboprop jet. It screeched to a halt as the metal hook on the underside of its tail grabbed a cable stretched across the deck.

“Perfect!” a grinning Rumsfeld called the landing as he and his guests gathered for a group photo.

It was one of the most usual groups of defense chiefs ever to assemble on an American aircraft carrier.

They came from Gulf nations such as Qatar and Bahrain; NATO allies, including Hungary, Poland and Romania; aspiring alliance members such as Albania and Azerbaijan; former Soviet republics such as Estonia and Lithuania; and new U.S. partners in the terrorism fight, including Macedonia and Georgia.

Also in attendance was the minister from Mongolia, which has 173 troops in Iraq.

Rumsfeld flew to the Kennedy from the Gulf island nation of Bahrain shortly after arriving from Washington.

In an interview en route from Washington, Rumsfeld told reporters that it was still possible that U.S. commanders in Iraq may decide they need more U.S. troops before the election in January.

“To the extent that’s appropriate or needed, obviously that makes sense,” Rumsfeld said. He stressed that he preferred that any troop additions come from other countries.

The United States now has about 135,000 troops in Iraq.

As Iraq’s election draws near, the fear is that insurgents, hoping to disrupt progress toward democracy and create more chaos, will attack polling places.

In the interview en route to Bahrain, Rumsfeld was asked whether Casey and his boss, Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, had asked for more troops. Rumsfeld did not reply directly.

He alluded to the continuing and largely fruitless effort to find countries that will send forces to provide security for an expanded U.N. presence in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

The Pentagon chief noted that the United States also had sought foreign contributions of troops to support Afghanistan’s elections. “In the case of Afghanistan we went ahead and put in some extra forces ourselves,” he added, referring to the recent decision to send in troops of the 82nd Airborne Division.

In Iraq, he said, the first choice for getting extra security is to persuade other countries to contribute rather than sending more Americans.

“To the extent other countries come in and take some of that responsibility, then it might not be necessary,” Rumsfeld said. “The thing we’ve got going in Iraq that is very good is the fact that we’ve got a steady, growing number of security forces because the Iraqi security forces have been growing at a good clip.”

AP-ES-10-09-04 1314EDT

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