Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Christmas Eve journey to Iraq drew a friendly reception from U.S. troops, but the trip might do little to quiet critics who believe that he...

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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Christmas Eve journey to Iraq drew a friendly reception from U.S. troops, but the trip might do little to quiet critics who believe that he has understaffed and underequipped the war.

In visits to troops in hotspots Mosul, Fallujah and Baghdad, as well as Tikrit, Rumsfeld displayed his empathetic side after weeks of criticism of his war planning and his brusque style.

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“I am very grateful and privileged to look in your eyes and have the chance to say thank you,” he said, sounding a theme he repeated at each stop. Before posing with dozens of soldiers at one stop, he said loudly, “I am proud to stand in the middle of that crowd.”

Rumsfeld, who took a small pool of reporters with him on his surprise 12-hour trip to Iraq’s hotspots, spent most of his time mingling with individual soldiers. He ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with the troops.

“He already was fairly popular with the troops in Iraq. His main problem is in the Washington Beltway, and that’s going to be harder to solve,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public-policy group.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine and Trent Lott of Mississippi have joined several Democrats in a fusillade of complaints. McCain went so far as to say last week he had “no confidence” in Rumsfeld.

The senatorial barrage came after Rumsfeld told a soldier preparing to enter Iraq, “You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have.” Rumsfeld was responding to a question from the soldier who told a tale of scavenging for scrap metal to protect vehicles because real armor wasn’t available. The question was suggested to the soldier by a newspaper reporter.

Although a Pentagon spokesman said Rumsfeld’s trip had been planned “for some time,” and holiday visits to troops in conflict zones are customary, one Capitol Hill aide, who asked to be unnamed, said that Rumsfeld seemed to regard the visit as “image rehab 101.” He noted that Rumsfeld also went to Iraq after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal broke in May.

President Bush went to Iraq on Thanksgiving a year ago, but yesterday he remained at Camp David, Md., and made telephone calls to 10 troops, six of them stationed in Iraq.

To the troops yesterday, Rumsfeld carried the message of perseverance.

“The battlefields of the global war on terror are everywhere one looks,” Rumsfeld told soldiers on the steps of a grandiose palace in Tikrit, deposed President Saddam Hussein’s hometown. “Our task, it seems to me, is to recognize this is something that will take time.”

In Tikrit, Rumsfeld became slightly emotional when wishing the troops a merry Christmas, pausing briefly before ending his speech. “There will be here an Iraqi solution, not an American solution or a coalition solution, but an Iraqi solution,” he said.

Later, in response to a soldier’s question, he continued the thought: “Our task is not to do it for them; they have to do it themselves. We don’t want to create a dependency on their part, being dependent on us; we want to create an independency on their part, a strength and an ability to go forward.”

Rumsfeld maintained an upbeat tone, though he appeared to acknowledge that the battle for Iraq could be far from over.

“Our armed forces are capable of defeating other armed forces,” he said. In Iraq, “the test and the task is more a test of wills, a test of staying power.”

“We are going to be faced from the shadows, from the side streets and with people who are using every conceivable time, test, way and tactic to make you suffer,” Rumsfeld said.

Material from The Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers is included in this report.