WASHINGTON—Brushing aside rising calls for more troops to police Iraq, President Bush on Wednesday insisted that U.S. forces can restore order there and taunted Iraqis and Islamic militants who want to drive them out.
"My answer is, bring them on," Bush told reporters. "We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."
Bush's belligerent comments came amid an intense internal debate within the administration over whether to send reinforcements for the 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The mounting death toll in Iraq two months after Bush declared an end to major combat has led to calls in Congress for him to tell the American people that the U.S. mission in Iraq will require a bigger, longer commitment than his administration has acknowledged.
More than two dozen Americans have been killed since Bush declared the war essentially over on May 1. Two more died on Wednesday—one from wounds suffered in a Tuesday attack, another in a mine-clearing operation south of Baghdad.
L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, has not formally requested more American troops to quell persistent violence, his spokesman said Wednesday. Denying an earlier Knight Ridder report, his spokesman said Bremer has not expressed any "dissatisfaction" with the current level of about 146,000 U.S. soldiers.
The spokesman, Dan Senor, did confirm that Bremer is seeking dozens of U.S. civilian officials to help rebuild Iraq, as Knight Ridder reported.
Bremer "did not request additional troops," Senor said. "His request was focused on civilian needs."
But a State Department official, who requested anonymity because he was contradicting the official administration line, said that Bremer has been discussing the need for more troops with U.S. Central Command, the State Department and the White House.
"The fact is, he needs more troops," asserted the State Department official, who said Bremer has been "agitating" for either the rapid deployment of international peacekeeping troops or more American soldiers.
A senior administration official who also declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, insisted that Bremer has complained within administration circles that U.S. forces in Iraq are spread too thin. The official said there is deep and growing concern within the government over whether the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is sufficient to restore order.
The question has been discussed at various levels, including by Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said.
Bremer, he said, has expressed "a feeling that there are too few troops in too low concentrations" to halt violence and crime.
The official said that Rumsfeld and senior Pentagon civilians are adamantly opposed to any increase.
They have insisted throughout the war and its aftermath that troop levels were sufficient—even after former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki said earlier this year that he believed at least several hundred thousand soldiers would be needed for occupation duty.
U.S. officials blame the continuing attacks against U.S. troops on Iraqis who remain loyal to Saddam Hussein and Islamic militants from other countries eager to kill Americans. Many Iraqi civilians say that the violence stems as well from growing resentment among ordinary people of what they perceive to be U.S. bullying and failure to deliver on promises of better lives.
Bush said the attacks would not weaken his resolve to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to restore order and establish a democratic government.
"There are some who feel like that if they attack us that we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about," he said.
It was the second time in two days that Bush spoke of his commitment to Iraq. On Tuesday he acknowledged that rebuilding Iraq would be "a massive and long-term undertaking."
Bush seemed eager to respond to critics of his Iraq policy during a question-and-answer session with reporters after a White House event on AIDS.
He downplayed the need to seek military assistance from other countries, even as the United States is seeking the deployment of up to three divisions—about 60,000 soldiers—of foreign peacekeepers from countries such as Britain, Poland and Pakistan. The effort is being delayed by questions about who will pay.
"We've got plenty of tough force there right now to make sure the situation is secure," he said. "We're always glad to include others in. But make no mistake about it—and the enemy should make any mistake about it—we will deal with them harshly if they continue to try to bring harm to the Iraqi people."
Bush's tough talk drew a barbed response from Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, a Democratic presidential candidate.
"Enough of the phony, macho rhetoric," Gephardt said. "We need a serious attempt to develop a post-war plan for Iraq and not more shoot from the hip one-liners."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer took issue with suggestions that Bush's "bring them on" remark could encourage more attacks on Americans.
"First of all, I don't think people in Iraq who are loyal to Saddam Hussein are going to or not going to attack based on a news conference," he said. "They're going to attack because that's what they do, that's what they've done as long as they were in power and that's what they continue to do."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.