Bremer Critique on Iraq Raises Political Furor

By ELISABETH BUMILLER and JODI WILGOREN

New York Times

October 6, 2004

WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 - Assertions by L. Paul Bremer III, the former top American administrator in Iraq, that President Bush had not sent enough troops to secure the country put the White House on the defensive on Iraq policy on Tuesday and prompted Senator John Kerry to expand his assault on Mr. Bush as commander in chief.

Mr. Bremer's comments, made in two recent speeches, quickly moved to the center of the presidential campaign. He said at DePauw University on Sept. 17 that he had often raised the problem with the administration and "should have been even more insistent.'' He also spoke Monday at an insurance conference in West Virginia, where he apparently thought his comments were off the record.

Mr. Kerry seized on the comments, first reported Tuesday by The Washington Post, and argued to an audience in Iowa that Mr. Bush "may be constitutionally unable to level with" the public. He called on Mr. Bush to own up to his mistakes in Iraq.

The administration, without disputing Mr. Bremer's statements that he had wanted more troops when he arrived in May 2003, said that the force levels had been set by military commanders there. By the end of the day, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, was insisting that Mr. Bush's instructions to his commanders about more troops were "just let me know, you'll have them."

If administration officials were defending Mr. Bush's decisions in public, in background conversations they were clearly furious with Mr. Bremer, who in recent weeks they have blamed for much that has gone wrong in Baghdad.

Still, two senior officials confirmed Tuesday evening that Mr. Bremer had sought more troops before he left Washington to take up his post as the head of the coalition authority in Iraq, and that once he arrived in Baghdad he repeated his belief that the United States and its allies had committed insufficient forces to the task.

"The reality is that Paul kept pressing the issue, because it was immediately clear that a lot of facilities - even arms stockpiles - were unguarded," said one senior official who was part of that debate but insisted on anonymity.

Mr. Kerry, hammering away at the president's Iraq policy, called Mr. Bremer's remarks evidence that the administration had mismanaged the war. "There are a long list of mistakes and 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," Mr. Kerry told several hundred supporters in a school gym. "I don't know if the president is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging the truth, I don't know if he's just so stubborn that he's going to go down."

In addition to the Bremer speeches, Mr. Kerry quoted remarks made Monday by the secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, that he had not "seen any strong, hard evidence that links" Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Mr. Kerry said of the president, "Maybe he's simply unwilling to face the truth and to share it with the American people." Mr. Rumsfeld later issued a statement backing away from his comment, which he said "regrettably was misunderstood."

Mr. Kerry said, "Commander in chief means you have to make judgments that protect the troops and accomplish the mission. I would listen to all of my advisers and make the best judgment possible. I can tell you this: General Shinseki asked for more troops, and he was fired. So that's a surefire way to chill a lot of other people from asking for things later."

General Eric K. Shinseki, then Army chief of staff, testified before the war that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed in Iraq afterward; he was contradicted by other Pentagon officials. General Shinseki was not fired but had difficult relations with the Pentagon's civilian leadership and was pushed into retiring at the end of his four-year term in 2003.

At the Pentagon, officials said that Mr. Bremer, while interested in the issue of security, had no authority over troop levels, which was solely the purview of military commanders. "Any views Mr. Bremer may have expressed regarding the capabilities and levels of U.S. forces in Iraq would have been referred to the military commanders and the chairman and members of the Joint Chiefs for their review and consideration," said Lawrence Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman.

"Before, during and subsequent to Mr. Bremer's tenure, the military commanders and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the level of U.S. forces in Iraq was the appropriate level, and that was their recommendation to the secretary of defense,'' Mr. Di Rita said.

In a speech on Monday to an insurance conference in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Mr. Bremer said, "We never had enough troops on the ground" to stop the widespread looting immediately after the fall of Baghdad and the lawlessness and insurrection that followed. The group released portions of his remarks after the speech.

At DePauw University, Mr. Bremer said that "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. He said that he raised his concerns a number of times within the administration, but that he "should have been even more insistent."

His remarks there were posted on the DePauw Web site. Mr. Bremer could not be reached for comment.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, seemed to suggest in a briefing for reporters on Tuesday that Mr. Bremer had never raised his concerns about troop levels with Mr. Bush, but Mr. McClellan did not entirely rule out that such a conversation had occurred.

"They met on a regular basis, I don't remember that Ambassador Bremer ever talked about that, but we never got into the habit of reading out any of those discussions," Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Bremer served for more than a year in Iraq, up until the handover of power on June 28.

In his remarks in Iowa, Mr. Kerry cited Bremer's speeches as more evidence of what he called the administration's wrong course in Iraq.

Mr. Kerry said the administration had made "a long list of mistakes" in Iraq, and added that Mr. Bremer had admitted to two of them. The two mistakes, Mr. Kerry said, were that "we didn't deploy enough troops to get the job done, and, two, we didn't contain the violence after Saddam was deposed."

In an e-mailed statement quoted by The Washington Post, Mr. Bremer said that he fully supported the Bush administration's course in Iraq.

"I believe that we currently have sufficient troop levels in Iraq," he said in the statement, according to The Post.

Mr. Bremer's remarks in his two speeches were considerably at odds with Mr. Bremer's previous public statements about Iraq.

In an interview on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" on July 20, 2003, not quite 11 weeks after he arrived in Baghdad, Mr. Bremer was asked if the United States needed more troops in Iraq.

"I do not believe we do," Mr. Bremer replied. "I think the military commanders are confident we have enough troops on the ground, and I accept that analysis."

Elisabeth Bumiller reported from Washington for this article, and Jodi Wilgoren from Tipton, Iowa. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.