MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, facing renewed criticism about his handling of the Iraq war, has a simple yet emphatic answer for his critics: ``No, no, no.''
Speaking as he arrived Sunday in Nicaragua, well away from the discord in Washington, Rumsfeld said President Bush gave him his personal vote of confidence in a recent private call.
Rumsfeld also told reporters he was not surprised by reports the White House chief of staff encouraged Bush to fire him after the 2004 elections.
``It's the task of the chief of staff of the White House _ and having been one, I know that _ to raise all kinds of questions with the president and think through different ways of approaching things,'' Rumsfeld said. ``So it wouldn't surprise me a bit if that subject had come up.''
In his new book ``State of Denial,'' Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward writes that former White House chief of staff Andrew Card twice sought to persuade Bush to fire Rumsfeld. Card has not disputed that he talked about a Rumsfeld resignation with the president but said it was his job to discuss a wide range of possible replacements.
The defense secretary and Bush have faced growing criticism for their handling of the Iraq war as violence there has escalated, U.S. casualties have mounted and public support for the conflict has declined.
Rumsfeld is in Managua for two days of meetings with defense officials from more than 30 South and Central American countries. He was more eager to talk about the importance of continuing military relationships with those countries, including military training programs.
Severing ties to the Latin American countries because of disagreements on other issues, he said, would only hurt the United States in years to come. It is better to maintain relationships and create a greater understanding of the U.S., he said.
``There's going to be no nation that will agree with us all the time,'' said Rumsfeld, adding that it would be ``unfortunate if our immediate reaction to some disagreement or difference would have the automatic effect of severing military to military relationships.''
The talks here _ in one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries _ are expected to focus on counter-narcotics and counterterrorism efforts, peacekeeping missions, humanitarian and disaster relief and the removal of land mines.
The meeting of the region's defense ministers follows a tense period in which Venezuela's leaders lashed out at the U.S. and Bush during a U.N. meeting in New York City. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Bush ``the devil'' and slammed U.S. leaders for trying to block his country from taking a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Rumsfeld said Sunday he did not expect to meet privately with the Venezuelan defense minister, although he will see him during the regular meetings.
One senior defense official traveling with Rumsfeld added that U.S. officials are not here looking for a conflict with the Venezuelans and ``we're not trying to make this some kind of competition.''
U.S. officials have long considered Chavez a destabilizing force. And they have suggested that Venezuela would make the Security Council unworkable if the nation were to win its bid against U.S.-backed Guatemala for a rotating council seat.
Also Sunday, Rumsfeld visited the nearby Masaya Volcano, and made the steep climb up to the top of the crater, to peer down over the edge of the most active volcano in the region.
Masaya has erupted at least 19 times since 1524, but on Sunday it was quiet, with just a cloud of steam rising from its depths.