WASHINGTON – The White House refused to say Tuesday whether the top U.S. civilian official in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's (search) ouster had asked the president for more troops to deal with the rapid descent of postwar Iraq into chaos.
In remarks published Tuesday, the official, L. Paul Bremer (search), said he arrived in Iraq (search) on May 6, 2003 to find "horrid" looting and a very unstable situation — throwing new fuel onto the presidential campaign issue of whether the United States had sufficiently planned for the post-war situation in Iraq.
"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," Bremer said during an address to an insurance group in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The group released a summary of his remarks in Washington.
"We never had enough troops on the ground," Bremer said, while insisting that he was "more convinced than ever that regime change was the right thing to do."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to say whether Bremer had pleaded with Bush for more troops. "We never get into reading out all the conversations they had," McClellan said.
Later, in an unusual public acknowledgment of internal dissent, the Bush campaign said that Bremer and the military brass had clashed on troop levels.
"Ambassador Bremer differed with the commanders in the field," said campaign spokesman Brian Jones. "That is his right, but the president has always said that he will listen to his commanders on the ground and give them the support they need for victory."
Kerry said Tuesday that Vice President Dick Cheney should acknowledge mistakes made in Iraq, pointing to remarks by Bremer that more troops had been needed in the aftermath of war.
"I hope tonight Mr. Cheney can acknowledge those mistakes," the Democratic presidential candidate said, referring to the debate between the vice president and Kerry's running mate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. "I hope Mr. Cheney can take responsibility."
Kerry said there was a "long list of mistakes" that the Bush administration had made in Iraq.
"I'm glad that Paul Bremer has finally admitted at least two of them, and the president of the United States needs to tell the truth to the American people," Kerry said. The other mistake, Kerry said, was a failure to contain postwar mayhem and violence.
In a statement Monday night to The Washington Post, Bremer said he fully supported the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq.
"I believe that we currently have sufficient troop levels in Iraq," he said in the e-mailed statement, according to Tuesday's edition of the Post. He said references to troops levels related to the situation when he first arrived in Baghdad "when I believed we needed either more coalition troops or Iraqi security forces to address the looting."
Bremer addressed the Insurance Leadership Forum, at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Portions of the speech were made available Monday night through a press release from the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers.
In an earlier speech Sept. 17 at DePauw University, Bremer said he frequently raised the issue of too few troops within the Bush administration and "should have been even more insistent" when his advice was rejected. "The single most important change — the one thing that would have improved the situation — would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation, Bremer said, according to the Banner-Graphic in Greencastle, Ind.
The final report by the American weapons inspector in Iraq — Charles Duelfer — will come out this week. In drafts, Duelfer found that Saddam did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but left signs that he had idle programs he someday hoped to revive.
Even before the final report was issued, McClellan said it bolstered the White House's contentions on Iraq.
The report will assert "that Saddam Hussein had the intent and the capability, that he was pursuing an aggressive strategy to bring down the sanctions, the international sanctions imposed by the United Nations through illegal financing procurement schemes," McClellan said. "That's something that's very revealing."
"The fact that he had the intent and capability" to build weapons of mass destruction, and that he was "trying to undermine the sanctions that were in place is very disturbing, and I think the report will continue to show that he was a gathering threat that needed to be taken seriously, that it was a matter of time before he was going to begin pursuing those weapons of mass destruction," McClellan said.
McClellan ticked off a litany of what he said were links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Both were "sworn enemies of the free world, including the United States"; both "celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks on America," he said.
"There are clearly ties between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda," McClellan said. "There (were) clearly some disturbing similarities that existed as well."
"We know there were senior-level contacts between the regime and Al Qaeda — the 9/11 commission documented that," McClellan said.
In fact, the 9/11 report said that while there were "friendly contacts" between Iraq and Al Qaeda and a common hatred of the United States, none of these contacts "ever developed into a collaborative relationship."
Indeed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a speech Monday that he knew of no clear link between the Al Qaeda terror network and Saddam Hussein, although he later backed off the statement and said he was misunderstood.
Asked to describe the connection between the Iraqi leader and the Al Qaeda terror network at an appearance Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pentagon chief first refused to answer, then said: "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."
Several hours after his appearance, Rumsfeld issued a statement from the Pentagon saying his comment "regrettably was misunderstood" by some. He said he has said since September 2002 that there were ties between Usama bin Laden's terror group and Iraq.