Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq today on his 13th unannounced visit since the war started in 2003, ABC News has learned. It was an unusually secretive farewell tour of the nation that will almost certainly define his legacy.
The trip, laden with symbolism, is among the last stops in Rumsfeld's farewell tour, with just nine days left before former CIA Director Robert Gates assumes Rumsfeld's third-floor office in the Pentagon.
Reporters usually agree to keep Rumsfeld's trips to Iraq secret until he arrives on the ground, under standard Pentagon rules designed to avoid alerting insurgents. But this visit has remained undisclosed even after his arrival.
The trip comes weeks after President Bush announced a day after Election Day that he would replace Rumsfeld. In the election, public concern over the course of the Iraq war led voters to hand both houses of Congress to Democrats, who had remained in the minority for the vast majority of the president's tenure.
Rumsfeld's visit also comes just days after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group declared the situation in Iraq to be "grave and deteriorating" and recommended major changes in the war policies that Rumsfeld oversaw.
Rumsfeld addressed Pentagon employees with a catch in his throat this week. He said Americans would be mistaken to withdraw from Iraq immediately and that his worst day on the job was when he learned of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal that tarnished the war effort.
"I wish I could say that everything we've done here has gone perfectly, but that's not how life works, regrettably," Rumsfeld told Defense Department employees.
At that meeting, a sometimes emotional Rumsfeld quoted a wounded service member he had met in a military hospital.
"He looked up and he said, 'If only the American people will give us the time, we can do this,'" Rumsfeld said. "We're getting it done. And it is a fact, it will take patience and it will take understanding."
Rumsfeld has been a polarizing figure in the United States and Iraq. One Iraqi told ABC News that "Rumsfeld failed in Iraq," but another said, "If his visit benefits Iraq, I welcome him."
Residents of a village north of Baghdad expressed their anger one day after an American air strike killed 17 people, including six women and five children. U.S. military officials said they were targeting al Qaeda militants who had fired on American troops.
Despite continued violence that included car bombs in the northern city of Mosul and the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Karbala, Rumsfeld could point to one hopeful sign today: Iraqi politicians are said to be close to a deal to share oil revenues among the nation's ethnic and religious groups, an agreement that could ease tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Iraqi Kurds.