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Rumsfeld says he feels grief to his core

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld delivered an impassioned defense of himself yesterday, saying at a Pentagon news conference that US casualties in Iraq affect him profoundly.

''I hope and pray that every family member of those who have died so bravely knows how deeply I feel their loss," he said in a lengthy statement at the outset of the press session. ''When I meet with the wounded, with their families, or with the families of those who have been lost, their grief is something I feel to my core."

Rumsfeld also said he stays ''awake at night for concern for those at risk."

Rumsfeld, who has been so embattled lately that President Bush came to his defense earlier this week, did not directly mention an incident in Kuwait earlier this month in which some people thought he was dismissive of a soldier's concern about the lack of armor on military vehicles, and a subsequent flap over his office's using a machine to put his signature to letters of condolence to families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

''I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I, or others here, are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of fighting men and women are protected and are cared for in every way humanly possible," he said.

In the wake of Rumsfeld's recent troubles, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a slim majority of respondents disapproved of his performance and thought he should be dismissed. Some members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, have called for him to step down. Those reviews contrast sharply to the Rumsfeld of 2001 and 2002, whose bravura briefings during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to him being dubbed the Bush administration's ''rock star."

In his introductory comments yesterday, Rumsfeld also reviewed the Bush administration's successes in national security. ''More than three-quarters of Al Qaeda's key members and associates have been captured or killed," he said.

In addition, he continued, Afghanistan has been liberated, and it recently held elections. As to Iraq, he said that ''ultimately," Iraqis will have to protect themselves. ''It's their country," he said.

But it was Rumsfeld's comments, his own feelings, and his subdued demeanor that most struck some. ''It seemed almost an act of contrition," said retired Army Major General Robert H. Scales Jr. ''That's what it came across as, dripping of humility."

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