Karim Kadim, Associated Press
An Iraqi boy crosses debris from a damaged house after a mortar attack in Baghdad. The attack killed a woman and two of her children and injured another child.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday he is bracing for even more violence in Iraq and acknowledged that the insurgency "could go on for any number of years."

Defeating the insurgency may take as long as 12 years, he said, with Iraqi security forces, not U.S. and foreign troops, taking the lead and finishing the job.

The assessment comes on the heels of the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll showing public doubts about the war reaching a high point — with more than half saying that invading Iraq was a mistake.

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East appealed for public support of the soldiers and their mission. "We don't need to fight this war looking over our shoulder worrying about the support back home," Gen. John Abizaid told CNN's "Late Edition."

In a deadly week for U.S. forces, an ambush on a convoy carrying female troops killed four Marines, including at least one woman. At least 1,735 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an AP count.

On Sunday, bombings in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq killed at least 48 people.

Rumsfeld, making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, said insurgents want to disrupt the democratic transformation as Iraqi leaders draft a constitution and plan for elections in December to choose a full-term government.

"I would anticipate you're going to see an escalation of violence between now and the December elections," the Pentagon chief told NBC's "Meet the Press." And after then, it will take a long time to drive out insurgents.

"Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years," Rumsfeld said on "Fox News Sunday."

"Coalition forces, foreign forces are not going to repress that insurgency. We're going to create an environment that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces can win against that insurgency," he said.

A British newspaper reported Sunday that American officials recently met secretly with Iraqi insurgent commanders north of Baghdad to try to negotiate an end to the bloodshed.

Speaking generally, Rumsfeld said those kind of meetings "go on all the time" and that Iraqis "will decide what their relationships with various elements of insurgents will be. We facilitate those from time to time."

Three militant groups — al-Qaida in Iraq, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army and the Islamic Army in Iraq — issued statements on their Web sites denying they had ever negotiated with U.S. or Iraqi officials to end the insurgency.

Abizaid said U.S. and Iraqi officials "are looking for the right people in the Sunni community to talk to . . . and clearly we know that the vast majority of the insurgents are from the Sunni Arab community. It makes sense to talk to them."

Echoing Rumsfeld, Abizaid made clear that "we're not going to compromise" with Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The contacts, the Pentagon leaders said, were intended to make it easier for the Shiite-led government to reach out to minority Sunnis.

The strength of the violent opposition to the U.S.-led coalition since the invasion in March 2003 has raised questions about whether the Bush administration understood that such a sustained reaction was possible.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., stressed that he and other critics of Bush's Iraq policy are determined to show their support for American soldiers in Iraq. At the same time, "we're also determined to be constructive critics of the policies which not only sent them there, as unequipped, and without international support, and without plans for the aftermath," he said.

Before the war, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that Iraqis freed from Saddam Hussein's rule would greet American troops as liberators. Rumsfeld said Sunday he gave President Bush a list of about 15 things "that could go terribly, terribly wrong before the war started."

He said they included Iraq's oil wells being set on fire; mass refugees and relocations; blown-up bridges; and a moat of oil around Baghdad, the capital.

"So a great many of the bad things that could have happened did not happen," Rumsfeld said.

Asked if his list included the possibility of such a strong insurgency, Rumsfeld said: "I don't remember whether that was on there, but certainly it was discussed."

Rumsfeld said Iraq's security forces have gained respect among Iraqis. He suggested insurgents' ability to kill in large numbers did not indicate a decline in public support for efforts by the U.S. and Iraqi governments, or that political, economic and security progress has been lacking.

"It doesn't take a genius to go blow up a restaurant or attack a police station, a suicide bomber. You can kill — a kid with a suicide vest can kill a lot of people," Rumsfeld said.

"Does that mean that the population is 'going south' and there's no plan and no progress? No, it doesn't mean that at all," he said.

Rumsfeld defended Cheney's recent statement that the insurgents are in their "last throes," saying there are many ways to measure their strength.

Comment on this story

"If you look up 'last throes,' it can mean a violent last throe," Rumsfeld said on ABC's "This Week." Violence may escalate, he said, because insurgents "have so much to lose between now and December." he said.

With some lawmakers urging the president to set a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home, Abizaid said Americans "need to be patient."

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Abizaid said, each country's security forces will take on more of the burden as they become more capable. He predicted that Iraqi security forces would take the lead in fighting insurgents by next spring or summer.

"That doesn't mean that I'm saying we'll come home by then," Abizaid told CBS' "Face the Nation."