WASHINGTON -- The White House staunchly defended its Iraq policy Tuesday as new questions emerged about President Bush's prewar decisions and postwar planning. An impending weapons report undercut the administration's main rationale for the war, and the former head of the American occupation said the United States had too few troops in Iraq after the invasion.
Four weeks before Election Day, Democrat John Kerry pounced on the acknowledgment by former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer Monday that the United States had "paid a big price" for insufficient troop levels.
Bremer, who shot into the national headlines with his remarks, softened his comments during a speech Tuesday in Michigan.
"We certainly had enough (troops) going into Iraq, because we won the war in a very short three weeks," he told an audience of more than 400 people at Michigan State University.
"The point that I have been making, and that has gotten a little bit distorted in the press recently, is that, as I look back now, I believe it would have been better to stop the looting that was found right after the war.
"One way to have stopped the looting would have been to have more troops on the ground. That's a retrospective wisdom of mine, looking backwards," he added. "I think there are enough troops there now for the job we are doing."
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," Kerry said, referring to postwar troop levels and a failure to contain chaos.
In a rare day spent in Washington, Bush remained out of sight and silent, letting his surrogates answer Kerry's charges. His speechwriters polished an address that administration aides said would be a sweeping indictment of Kerry's policies on Iraq, the war on terrorism and the economy.
"It's a comprehensive look at two very different records, one of accomplishment, and one of being on the wrong side of history over and over again," Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said of the speech.
The address in the swing state of Pennsylvania was originally to focus on health care, but the White House reversed course and made it about Iraq, seeking to blunt a new report on the absence of weapons of mass destruction there before the war.
Bremer, in a speech last month at DePauw University in Indiana, said he had raised within the Bush administration the issue of too few troops and "should have been even more insistent" when his advice was rejected.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to say if Bremer had pleaded with Bush for more troops, saying, "We never get into reading out all the conversations they had."
Bush consulted military commanders -- not his hand-picked Iraq administrator -- for guidance on troop levels, McClellan said, adding, "The lessons from the past, including Vietnam, are that we shouldn't try to micromanage military decisions from Washington."
In an unusual public acknowledgment of internal dissent, Bush campaign spokesman Brian Jones said Bremer and the military brass had clashed on troop levels.
"Ambassador Bremer differed with the commanders in the field," 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."
Military commanders believed the force level was adequate, said Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita.
"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."
Kerry said he would listen to military and civilian leaders if elected.
"Commander in chief means you have to make judgments that protect the troops and accomplish the mission," Kerry told reporters in Iowa. "I would listen to all of my advisers and make the best decision possible."
The White House, meanwhile, sought to put the brightest face possible on the final report by the American weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, due out Wednesday. In earlier drafts, Duelfer found Saddam had left signs he had idle weapons programs he someday hoped to revive, but that Saddam did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Even before Duelfer's final report was issued, McClellan said it bolstered the White House's assertions on Iraq.
The report will conclude "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. "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," he said.
McClellan's use of the phrase "begin pursuing those weapons" marked a new attempt to gradually back off the administration's once-firm assertions on Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction -- the main justification for the invasion.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials said repeatedly before invading Iraq that Saddam did have such weapons and that they posed a threat not only to Iraq's neighbors but to the United States as well. Later, the officials said Saddam was pursuing them.