Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry conceded yesterday that he probably will not be able to convince France and Germany to contribute troops to Iraq if he is elected president.

The Massachusetts senator has made broadening the coalition trying to stabilize Iraq a centerpiece of his campaign, but at a town hall meeting yesterday, he said he knows other countries won’t trade their soldiers’ lives for those of U.S. troops.

“Does that mean allies are going to trade their young for our young in body bags? I know they are not. I know that,” he said.

Asked about that statement later, Mr. Kerry said, “When I was referring to that, I was really talking about Germany and France and some of the countries that had been most restrained.”

“Other countries are obviously more willing to accept responsibilities,” he added, as he took questions from reporters in a school yard in Tipton, Iowa.

In his continuing criticism of President Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war and its aftermath, Mr. Kerry also pounced yesterday on statements by the Bush administration’s former top civilian administrator in Iraq that more combat troops were needed in the immediate aftermath of the war in 2003.

L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said in a speech Monday that when he arrived in Baghdad on May 6, 2003, “horrid” looting was going on.

“We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness,” Mr. Bremer, who is writing a book on his experiences, told the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers at a conference in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. “We never had enough troops on the ground.”

Mr. Bremer said having more troops in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would have been the “single most important change” the United States could have made.

His remarks were carried in a council press release posted Monday on its Web site.

Mr. Kerry said the speech confirmed the candidate’s charges that Mr. Bush has mismanaged Iraq.

“Today we have learned that America’s top official who was responsible for managing the Coalition Provisional Authority has acknowledged two mistakes,” Mr. Kerry said. “Paul Bremer, who was running the Coalition Provisional Authority, has admitted, we didn’t deploy enough troops to get the job done, and two, we didn’t contain the violence after Saddam Hussein was deposed.”

Mr. Kerry repeatedly cited Mr. Bremer’s remarks as he campaigned yesterday.

“Maybe he’s simply unwilling to face the truth or to share it with the American people,” Mr. Kerry said in Tipton. “The president’s stubbornness has prevented him from seeing, each step of the way, the difficulties and the ways in which we best protect our troops and best accomplish this mission.”

But the White House said Mr. Bush sided with his commanders who vouched for the force levels. And for his part, Mr. Bremer told the West Virginia meeting that he still endorsed the overall war objective of ousting Saddam, saying, “I am more than ever convinced that regime change was the right thing to do.”

A Bush campaign aide said yesterday that Mr. Bremer and top generals, disagreed on troop levels in the early days of the occupation when looting and other criminal activity broke out throughout Iraq.

“Ambassador Bremer differed with the commanders in the field,” campaign spokesman Brian Jones said. “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.”

National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack declined to say what advice Mr. Bremer gave the president, but said Mr. Bush honored all requests from the “chain of command.” Mr. McCormack described the chain of command as commanders in the field and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“President Bush made it clear whatever commanders needed they were going to get and that is what happened,” Mr. McCormack said.

The postwar troops level of about 145,000 was originally set by Gen. Tommy Franks and confirmed by his successor at U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid. The force dipped to about 130,000, before spiking to the 150,000 mark last spring as terrorists mounted uprisings in southern, northern and western Iraq. It was at that point that Mr. Bush approved a troop increase. The number has settled at 138,000 in recent months.

In public statements during his first few months in office, Mr. Bremer gave no hint that he thought troop numbers were too low. In fact, he endorsed them.

“I think the military commanders are confident we have enough troops on the ground, and I accept that analysis,” Mr. Bremer said July 20, 2003, on “Meet the Press.” “We have substantial, and in my belief, adequate numbers of troops.”

Mr. Kerry’s advisers told reporters yesterday morning they expected the White House would make Mr. Bremer back down from his comments, so they wanted to strike while they could.

“We’re going to hit it before the administration makes him eat his words later today,” adviser Michael McCurry said.

But criticism of the coalition by Mr. Kerry has led to ruffled feathers abroad.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the leader of one of the countries already contributing troops, sharply criticized Mr. Kerry for his frequent comments that no country besides the United States and Britain is contributing troops in a substantial way.

“It is sad that a senator with 20 years of experience underestimates Polish sacrifice, this is sad,” Mr. Kwasniewski said in an interview with Poland’s TVN television, saying it was “immoral” to ignore the contributions of Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and others.

Mr. Kerry yesterday didn’t address those comments specifically, but said all current coalition members are to be praised.

“I admire and I respect all the countries who have been willing to be involved in any way whatsoever and I don’t denigrate them,” Mr. Kerry said yesterday. But he then went on to say, “The fact is that most of this is being carried by America and that’s the truth, and Americans know it.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Mr. Kerry’s attitude toward Poland and Mr. Kwasniewski’s response shows that Mr. Kerry wouldn’t be able to put together the coalition he’s claimed.

“President Kwasniewski has been resolute in understanding the importance of achieving victory in Iraq, unlike Senator Kerry, who has vacillated with every shifting political wind,” Mr. Gillespie said.

Even before Mr. Kerry made his admission, France and Germany had made it clear that their absolute opposition to sending troops to Iraq was not a political calculation involving the U.S. election.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has categorically ruled out sending any soldiers, even to protect U.N. officials overseeing new elections, adding that “that’s where it’s going to remain.” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said his government will not send troops “either now or later.”

The United States also has clashed with the two European nations in recent talks on reducing Iraq’s $120 billion government debt, inherited from Saddam.

• Stephen Dinan reported from Tipton, Iowa. David R. Sands also contributed to this report from Washington.

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