WASHINGTON (AP) — Administration officials refused yesterday to set a timetable on troops returning home from Iraq. Democrats pressed for a departure strategy amid climbing American casualties.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told House and Senate committees that progress was being made in training Iraqi security forces but there was no way to know when the U.S. presence would end.

“There has never been a war that was predictable as to length, casualty or cost in the history of mankind,” he told the House Armed Services Committee under questioning from Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas).

Pentagon officials have long held that the United States cannot consider drawing down troop levels until Iraqi security forces are able to protect their own fragile democracy from insurgents.

Later, before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Rumsfeld declined to rule out a permanent or long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq when pressed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Rumsfeld said the Pentagon has no such plan but that it could become a matter for the president to discuss with Iraqi leaders once an elected government is in place.

And, testifying before the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sidestepped a request by Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Detroit), that she outline an exit strategy for withdrawing U.S. troops.

“I want to know how long,” Kilpatrick told Rice.

Rice replied, “Our forces will be relieved when we can get Iraq security forces up and running.” She didn’t say when that would be.

The officials were on Capitol Hill to defend budget requests for their agencies. But Democrats took the opportunity to press both on Iraq.

“We must win the war, but what is our strategy?” implored Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “American troops are still paying a deadly price.”

At least 1,460 U.S. troops have been killed since March 2003 and Rumsfeld said 1,392 Iraqi forces have died as well.

He said he expects the United States will make a modest shift in the coming weeks to focus more on mentoring and training — and less on battling the insurgency — as Iraqi soldiers take over the responsibility of protecting their country.

“I expect to see the coalition countries begin paring down their forces as they complete their contributions,” he added.

Pressed by Skelton and others about the scope of the insurgency in Iraq, Rumsfeld said: “I am not going to give you a number for it because it’s not my business to do intelligence work.”


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