KUWAIT, Dec. 6 - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld indicated Monday that he expected American troops to withdraw from Iraq within four years, but he cautioned that any final decision hinged on the progress that Iraq's civilian government and security forces made by then.
Asked by reporters traveling with him whether United States forces would be out of Iraq by the end of his second four-year term, Mr. Rumsfeld said, "I would certainly expect that to be the case and hope that to be the case."
He noted that President Bush had repeatedly said American forces would stay as long as needed in Iraq. But his answer offered intriguing clues to his thinking on two crucial subjects: the duration of the American military presence in Iraq and how long he will stay in his job.
The Defense Department announced last week that it would increase the number of American troops in Iraq to 150,000, from 138,000, by early next month, to help provide security for the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 and to keep pressure on the insurgency.
Pentagon officials said the increase was only temporary, through next March. But many American military officers and senior Iraqi ministry officials have forecast that the United States will have to keep a sizable troop presence in Iraq for years to come to battle a resilient and deadly insurgency and to help prevent the country from spiraling into civil war.
Mr. Bush asked Mr. Rumsfeld last week to stay on as defense secretary, a request Mr. Rumsfeld confirmed Monday that he "enthusiastically" accepted. But he said they had not discussed how long he would remain, and he declined to go into the subject.
The secretary arrived here on the first stop of a four-day trip that will include joining Vice President Dick Cheney at the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in Kabul on Tuesday, a visit to troops here and a stopover in India.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane on Monday, Mr. Rumsfeld struck an unusually reflective tone and ticked off several points that suggested he would relish the opportunity to serve another four-year term. Ultimately, of course, that decision rests with Mr. Bush.
He said he enjoyed working with Mr. Bush, whom he called "an excellent executive," was in good health, had no young children and was eager to tackle of series of continuing professional challenges, from revamping the military's overseas basing arrangements to overhauling the Pentagon's personnel system.
Mr. Rumsfeld, 72, has the distinction of having been both the oldest and the youngest defense secretary in the nation's history; he also served in the position under President Ford.
Asked if he had ever considered resigning during his first term in the Bush administration, he said, "Certainly there are days," without mentioning any one or any incident in particular.
Looking back over the past four years, he acknowledged that the two biggest mistakes or misjudgments that had been made - though not necessarily by him - were the failure to discover any prohibited weapons in Iraq ("that's clearly a disappointment") and a lack of intelligence that predicted "the degree of insurgency today."
He remained defiant in the face of critics who say the United States failed to send enough troops to Iraq initially to handle postwar security and, now, to combat the insurgents.
He contended that the decision on troop levels was largely "out of my control," since he was following the advice and requests of his regional commanders, first Gen. Tommy R. Franks and now Gen. John P. Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr.
While that may be technically true, Mr. Rumsfeld approves all decisions on troop levels in Iraq, and his commanders and top civilian aides have indicated that he routinely demands detailed explanations for troop increases and movements.
American commanders in Iraq have said the timing of the American withdrawal depends on the security situation and the ability of Iraqi security forces, now with 115,000 members, to conduct operations independently and competently.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the Iraqis, like Iraqi Army forces, have been "performing very well." But he acknowledged that in the battle against a well-armed, well-trained and well-led insurgency, poorly equipped police officers had been caught in "a mismatch" with militants.
"So we've got the task of continuing the training and equipping of the Iraqis so that they can take over the security responsibilities of their country," he said.
He said that despite the increasing attacks on the Iraqi security forces, there was no shortage of fresh recruits. "The more difficult task is the middle-level leadership," he said. "It's tying together morale."
By ERIC SCHMITT 12.7.04 © 2004 The New York Times