Fairbanks, Alaska Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Saturday praised the work of an Army brigade whose one-year tour in Iraq was extended just as they prepared to return home, and said he saw no reason for the soldiers or their families to be angry at him.
"I don't put it in that context," he said. "These people are all volunteers. They all signed up. They all are there doing what they're doing because they want to do it. They're proud of what they do. They do it very, very well."
The Pentagon chief was meeting privately later Saturday with 172nd Stryker Brigade families at Fort Wainwright, the unit's home base. Rumsfeld's aides said they expected as many as 600 people to attend and to have a chance to ask questions.
Reporters who traveled with Rumsfeld from Washington, D.C., were to be excluded from the session.
When asked why reporters would not be permitted to cover the event, Rumsfeld at first replied: "I don't have any idea. I haven't addressed the subject."
Later he said he made it a practice to make all family meetings private.
A newly formed Alaska chapter of the Military Families Speak Out group issued a statement in Fairbanks saying it would make a public call for the Bush administration to bring home the 172nd and all other U.S. troops. It quoted Jennifer Davis, of Anchorage, whose husband is a member of the 172nd.
"I am totally frustrated, disappointed and heart broken," she said in the statement. "Just when I thought we were going to be able to resume a 'normal' life and when I thought the nightmare was over, the nightmare was extended."
Rumsfeld said in the in-flight interview that the 172nd Brigade was an effective force during its nearly one-year deployment to the Mosul area in northern Iraq.
He said the soldiers performed well in the short time since they shifted to Baghdad as part of an effort by U.S. commanders to quell sectarian killings.
"They did a terrific job in Mosul and they're already doing an excellent job in Baghdad," Rumsfeld said, indicating that commanders chose to extend the 172nd Brigade in part because of their extensive experience in Iraq.
The brigade's tour was extended by up to 120 days, bringing them close to a Christmas return date.
Rumsfeld said he would make no promises that the full brigade would be back home by the holidays.
"I'd love to be Santa Claus. I'm not," he said in an interview with reporters during a flight to Fairbanks.
If it turned out that by December, U.S. commanders in Iraq felt they needed an unscheduled infusion of troops, "our first choice obviously would be to have them be someone other than the people we just extended," Rumsfeld said. "But I'm not going to get into the promises business. That isn't my style."
Today, Rumsfeld and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov planned to participate in a ceremony in Fairbanks for a memorial of the Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease program. During World War II, nearly 8,000 U.S. warplanes were flown to Fairbanks by U.S. pilots and turned over to Soviet pilots for use against the Germans.
Rumsfeld also was to tour the missile defense site at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, where interceptor rockets in underground silos are being developed for potential use in the event of a long-range missile attack on U.S. soil.
A test of portions of the system is scheduled to be in a few days.