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In this speech, he said another division should be deployed to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, which stretches from Baghdad west to Ramadi and north to Tikrit. In what would become a frequent refrain, he lashed Mr. Rumsfeld, who just three days earlier had repeated his emphatic assertion that no more troops were needed.

“I hope that Secretary Rumsfeld would recognize that - the realities on the ground. And the realities on the ground are that things are not getting better. … However you do it, I think we need more people there.”

The day after that, the defense secretary called to invite Mr. McCain to breakfast. The meeting the next morning was chilly; Mr. Rumsfeld opened by saying: “I read your speech.” (Mr. McCain later joked that “that must have been an enjoyable experience for him.”)

The defense secretary, who had made his own visit to Iraq in September, was perplexed by Mr. McCain’s assessment of the conditions on the ground, said a senior McCain adviser who asked not to be named because the meeting was private. But the senator spelled out what he thought was needed.

“He told Secretary Rumsfeld there was danger that the peace was being lost and asked that they ramp up both the troop strength and the civilian assistance programs,” the senior adviser said.

The senator “made a very passionate case that we need to look at adding more troops,” said Mr. Graham, who talked with Mr. McCain soon after the meeting with the defense secretary concluded.

“In that first visit [to Iraq] in August, it was very subtle as to what was going on, and it wasn’t obvious to everybody that the country was going into chaos, but John could see that the dynamics were all wrong,” Mr. Graham said.

As the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of military operations and considerable authority in shaping the Defense Department’s budget, Mr. McCain offered blunt advice.

“McCain believed the Pentagon was spending too much time on search and destroy missions that were ineffective, when in fact the troops needed to focus on the growing threats to civilians targeted by the insurgency, creating a chaos that could destabilize the entire country,” the McCain adviser said.

The secretary was not persuaded.

“Rumsfeld responded by assuring Senator McCain that the commanders had told him they had all the assets they needed on the ground,” the adviser said.

An aide to the secretary said Mr. McCain’s account is incorrect.

“In November 2003, Secretary Rumsfeld and Senator McCain had one of a number of conversations that ended with the two in agreement on the need to win in Iraq,” Keith Urbahn said. “Senator McCain may prefer to characterize their meeting as a Showdown at the OK Corral, but that’s not straight talk. It’s a fairy tale.”

Mr. Rumsfeld wrote a two-sentence summary shortly after his meeting, according to his office. “I had breakfast with Senator McCain. He said, ‘The answer may not be more troops in Iraq, but the answer is not the status quo.’ I agree with him.”

Mr. McCain nevertheless left the breakfast table convinced that the Pentagon was out of touch with reality, a conclusion that eventually would drive him to become one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s harshest critics. He made several additional private attempts to persuade the Pentagon and the White House to make changes in both strategy and tactics, and when those efforts failed, he decided to use his influence as a senator and a war hero to push the Pentagon to send more troops.

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