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2 key GOP senators defend Rumsfeld

Frist, McConnell back secretary despite criticism

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's top two Republicans expressed support for Donald Rumsfeld yesterday as the defense secretary's allies sought to outflank increasingly vocal GOP critics in and outside Congress.

''I am confident that Secretary Rumsfeld is fully capable of leading the Department of Defense and our military forces to victory in Iraq and the war on terror," majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said in a written statement. ''Most importantly, he has the confidence of his commanders in the field and our commander in chief."

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP whip, said Rumsfeld ''is an excellent secretary of defense, and we are fortunate to have a man of his courage and vision serving the president at this critical time."

Frist and McConnell came to Rumsfeld's defense after several days of GOP criticism aimed at the man who has steered the Pentagon during the Iraq war and its aftermath. More than 1,300 American troops have died since the US-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003.

None of Rumsfeld's congressional GOP critics has called for his ouster. Still, they have grown increasingly outspoken in recent days, less than two weeks after the White House disclosed that President Bush wanted the defense secretary to remain in his post into a second term.

The increased criticism from Republicans also coincides with the aftermath of Rumsfeld's encounter with troops in Kuwait who protested about long deployments and a shortage of armored vehicles and other equipment.

''I'm not a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld," Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said in remarks this week to the Chamber of Commerce in Biloxi, Miss. ''I don't think he listens enough to his uniformed officers." Lott added Bush should make a change at the Pentagon in the next year or so.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, released a letter to Rumsfeld that asked why the Army had not moved more aggressively to produce fully armored Humvees for the troops in Iraq.

''I don't like the way [Bush] has done some things. I think they have been irresponsible," said Senator Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska. ''We didn't go into Iraq with enough troops. . . . He's dismissed outside counsel and advice."

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