Democrat 'thumping' hastens exit of Rumsfeld

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Donald Rumsfeld, the beleaguered US Defence Secretary, resigned yesterday, hours after a sweeping Democratic victory in midterm elections that redraw the balance of political power in Washington and could presage major changes in policy over Iraq.

The electoral defeat had made Mr Rumsfeld's position all but untenable, given the criticism raining upon him not only from the resurgent Democrats but also from senior members of the Republican Party. But its timing was a shock - only days after Mr Bush had vowed to keep the Pentagon chief in place until the end of his term in January 2009.

White House aides said the President had been mulling the move for days, but word of it only emerged moments before Mr Bush appeared before the press, extending a hand of conciliation and co-operation to the triumphant Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi who is set to become America's first woman Speaker.

Mr Rumsfeld's replacement is set to be Robert Gates, a former CIA director and deputy national security adviser under this President's father. Mr Gates is a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by the former secretary of state James Baker, another retainer of the elder President Bush, which is about to issue keenly awaited recommendations on how to solve the crisis.

At a handover ceremony at the White House, a tight-faced Mr Rumsfeld, the second longest serving defence secretary, made clear he was not departing voluntarily. "I have benefited from criticism," he said, quoting Winston Churchill, "and I have not lacked thereof". He will stay on until Mr Gates is confirmed by the Senate.

Given the magnitude of the defeat, which may well see Democrats capturing the Senate as well as the House, Mr Bush was in remarkably feisty form. Often bantering with reporters, he admitted the outcome had been a "thumping" for his Republican Party - and indirectly for himself, even though his name had not been on the ballot.

It is no secret that there is no love lost between the President and Ms Pelosi, now second in line for the Oval Office after Dick Cheney, the Vice-President. But early yesterday, Mr Bush called to congratulate the Speaker-in waiting, describing her as "very gracious". Appealing for a bipartisanship he has done little to foster in his first six years, Mr Bush urged a change of tone in national politics, urging "a new era of co-operation" despite the return of divided government after six virtually uninterrupted years of Republican control of Capitol Hill.

But on Iraq, the most divisive issue of all, he gave little ground. He avoided an opportunity to endorse the Democrats' call for a "change of direction", and lavished praise on Mr Rumsfeld, whose domineering ways have made him a lightning rod for criticism of the war, saying he had served "with honour and distinction" as Secretary of Defence.

The arrival of Mr Gates offered a chance for a "fresh perspective" on policy, Mr Bush added, acknowledging that anger and frustration over Iraq had been a key factor in the Republicans' dismal performance, arguably comparable to the stuttering economy in the 1992 election won by Bill Clinton behind the slogan, "It's the economy stupid". But, the President went on, "I also believe most Americans - and leaders here in Washington from both political parties - understand we cannot accept defeat." He also expressed full confidence in Mr Cheney, widely seen along with Mr Rumsfeld as the face of the Iraq war - and sometimes as the prime mover of policy. The Vice-President would stay in place right through until 2009, Mr Bush declared.

"Do not be joyful," the President warned the country's enemies, "do not confuse the working of our democracy with a lack of will". He urged ordinary Iraqis not to be fearful, and pledged his own and and the country's unremitting support for US troops on the ground in Iraq.

Ms Pelosi herself offered few clues of what changes Democrats would seek in the conduct of the war, beyond a demand, swiftly met, for the dismissal of Mr Rumsfeld. Though Democrat-controlled committees in the House - and quite possibly the Senate - will launch rigorous hearings into some aspects of the war, the party is unlikely to seek to cut off Iraq funding. She has also ruled out any attempt to impeach Mr Bush.

With almost all results in, Democrats were poised to make a net gain of between 27 and 29 seats in the House, assuring them of a workable overall majority of just under 30, in the 110th Congress when it convenes in January. By early afternoon yesterday they had won five of the six Republican seats needed to capture the Senate, guaranteeing at least a 50-50 split.

Everything now hinges on Virginia, where the Democrat, Jim Webb, was leading the Republican incumbent, George Allen, by a wafer-thin 7,000 votes out of almost 2.4 million cast.

The margin is well within the 1 per cent, or 23,000 votes, difference at which either candidate can demand a recount. Mr Allen has so far shown no sign of conceding, while Republican officials hinted they would open legal action against alleged irregularities in the vote count. A final result might not come before December at the earliest, amid fears of a battle recalling the bitter fight in Florida after the 2000 presidential election.

The emergence of Ms Pelosi, a 66-year-old San Franciscan, as the all-but-certain first female Speaker of the House was only one of several milestones left by the election. Congress will have its first Muslim member, in Minnesota's Keith Ellison, while in West Virginia Robert Byrd, 88, shattered all records by winning a ninth six-year Senate term.

Democrats also won 20 of the 36 governorships at stake, including the three big prizes of New York, Ohio and Massachusetts. In the latter, Deval Patrick, a former Clinton administration official, becomes only the second black state governor in US history.

The results were seen around the world as a potent rejection of the war in Iraq and confirmation that Mr Bush has entered the terminal "lame duck" phase of his presidency. From Asia to Latin America, from the Middle East to many European capitals the result was seen - often with barely disguised satisfaction - as an overdue reverse for arguably the most unpopular US president of modern times.

How the parties stand

House of Representatives

228 Democrats

196 Republicans

All 435 seats are elected at the same time, every two years. The seats are allocated to states according to population. This year, the Democrats have turned an overall deficit of 30 to a majority of 32. There are 11 seats vacant.

The Senate

49 Republicans

48 Democrats

2 Independents

Virginia has still to declare, but five Democratic gains were confirmed. Each state has two senators, and 33 places were up for grabs this time. Senators serve six years, with one-third elected at two-yearly intervals