With the deadly attack on a U.S. helicopter throwing the worsening security situation in Iraq into sharp relief, senior Bush administration officials reiterated Sunday that the Pentagon was rushing to recruit and train tens of thousands of Iraqis -- including members of Saddam Hussein's disbanded army -- to help combat resistance fighters.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the ranks of Iraqis providing security in the country -- through the nation's nascent police force and army -- would double in size over the next year to more than 200,000. The recruits, he said, include a large number of former members of the deposed leader's army, whom he said U.S.-led coalition authorities have been welcoming to the new forces for six months.
"One of the ways we're improving [our counterintelligence capabilities] quite dramatically is by the success we're having in recruiting and training and deploying Iraqi security forces," Rumsfeld said on ABC's "This Week."
"They speak the language. They live in the neighborhoods. And we have found that the intelligence information coming into our forces goes up significantly when we have joint patrols and joint operations with Iraqi forces."
On May 23, the chief U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, dissolved the 400,000-strong Iraqi armed services, ignoring the advice of both U.S. experts and exiled Iraqi officials who had envisioned a significant role for the military in peacekeeping efforts.
On Sunday, Bremer defended his action as "not a mistake.... There was no army to disband. They simply laid down their arms and went home" after the American invasion began.
"There are plenty of places in the Iraqi security forces for the army, and we are welcoming them," Bremer told CNN's "Late Edition."
"We think it's very important for the Iraqis to be much more actively engaged in their security," Bremer said.
Sunday's attack on a Chinook helicopter, which left 16 dead and 20 injured, put increased pressure on the administration to justify the mounting American death toll and to explain its strategy for stabilizing Iraq.
The strike just south of Fallouja, a center of Sunni Muslim resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, was the deadliest attack so far on U.S. troops in Iraq. At least some of those killed and injured were headed to Baghdad airport to begin a two-week vacation outside Iraq.
While acknowledging that attacks against Americans in Iraq are getting more ingenious and more frequent, Rumsfeld dismissed the notion that the security situation in the country as a whole was worsening.
"What it was is a bad day, a bad day," Rumsfeld told "Fox News Sunday." "In a war, there are going to be days like that. And it is necessary that we recognize that.
"There are going to be days where large numbers of people ... are killed. That's what war is about. Is it deteriorating in general? No, it's not."
Rumsfeld said the attack was "part of a war that's difficult and complicated." But both he and Bremer said the tragedy would not weaken U.S. resolve.
"We have to be realistic," Bremer said on CNN. "We're in a war here, and we will take casualties as long as we're here."
Bremer said the United States had no hard evidence that Hussein was coordinating the recent attacks against American troops that U.S. commanders have attributed to a burgeoning Iraqi insurgency. But he repeated the belief, voiced by a number of senior administration officials in recent weeks, that Hussein is alive and is in hiding in the north of the country.
As of Sunday, 377 U.S. service members had died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Of those, 239 had been killed since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations had ended.
Bremer said that the only way to alleviate the guerrilla violence in Iraq is "by having Iraqis share the burden of defending their country with us on the war on terrorism. And part of it will depend on getting better intelligence about the people who are attacking us."
During a news conference Tuesday, Bush expressed frustration at the lack of "actionable intelligence" that would enable coalition forces to stop attacks and called for more Iraqis to become involved in intelligence-gathering "so they are active participants in securing the country from further harm."
But bolstering local forces may not mean the U.S. can withdraw more of its troops. Beginning in January, fresh troops from bases in the United States will be deployed to Iraq to relieve tens of thousands of the about 130,000 troops who already have spent a year in the region, Rumsfeld said.
Some Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been urging the administration to revive negotiations with European allies on getting military reinforcements.
"We need our major NATO allies in there, and in there fast," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Appearing on the same program, the committee's senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, endorsed the idea, saying Bush should relent on European demands for more international control over Iraq.
"We're paying the price for" failing to win European support before the war, Biden said.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.