Rumsfeld Consults Italians, Visits U.S. Troops at Aviano Air Base


By Gerry J. Gilmore, AFPS

UNICH, Feb. 8, 2003 — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived at this Bavarian city Feb. 7 after a bevy of meetings with Italian defense officials in Rome and U.S. troops at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

Rumsfeld is slated to speak today at the multinational Munich Conference on Security Policy and to meet with other defense officials to discuss issues surrounding the global war on terrorism. Iraq is high on the secretary’s agenda the entire day.

Rumsfeld said he discussed NATO, bilateral, and other defense issues in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Defense Minister Antonio Martino and other senior officials. He and Martino afterward held a press conference at Berlusconi’s office complex, where the secretary thanked Italy for its friendship and support in the war on terrorism.

He said Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, and other nations, gladdened him with recent statements of support "expressing their determination that Iraq disarm itself of its weapons of mass destruction."

He said such declarations demonstrate that the world is increasingly united in seeing Iraq jettison its WMDs and the means to deliver them.

Saddam Hussein wouldn’t hesitate to use his deadly arsenal in the future, Rumsfeld pointed out in Rome. And, he noted, such weaponry could well fall into the hands of terrorists.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States killed 3,000 people from many countries, but biological, chemical or nuclear WMDs could destroy 30,000 or 300,000 equally innocent lives, he emphasized. And, he said, Hussein continues to hide his WMDs from U.N. inspectors in Iraq.

Yet, the secretary noted that the current debate whether or not to go to war against Hussein "is healthy and desirable, and part of the process that our world and our people and our democratic systems have to go through."

However, in weighing the pros and cons of possible war to forcibly disarm Hussein, "the risks of not acting may be vastly greater than the risks of acting," he said. "These are important … tough issues."

Afterward, Rumsfeld flew northeast to Aviano Air Base and met with hundreds of cheering service members and wives inside a large hangar. He praised the Aviano troops and also Italy, noting it is "an ally in the truest sense of the word." He then fielded audience questions about modernization, possible war with Iraq, smallpox vaccinations, the draft, and other topics.

An Air Force master sergeant, for example, voiced concerns about modernization and accented them by pointing to what he said was a 15-year-old F-16 fighter in the hangar.

"That’s young," Rumsfeld jokingly replied. "I’m 70!"

The secretary then explained the sergeant’s not alone in his concerns. The U.S. military’s jet fighters are indeed aging, he said, and that’s why modernization efforts to develop and field new F-22Raptor fighters and other equipment are important.

After the question-answer talks, Rumsfeld walked across the hangar, talked to troops, shook hands and posed for photos.

Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Johnson, a 29-year-old F-16 mechanic from Chatham, Va., said he was happy the secretary visited Aviano. He’s "looking after all his troops, making sure everybody is up to par, up to speed," noted the seven- year Air Force veteran.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. John R. Kowalski, a 33-year-old F-16 mechanic from Chicago, called Rumsfeld’s visit a morale- booster. He said he thought the secretary is doing an "excellent, excellent job." Kowalski said he watches Rumsfeld on television and noted the man’s "right to the point."

And the secretary "is from Illinois," the 15-year Air Force veteran pointed out proudly.