President Bush faced intensified pressure Sunday to commit more troops to Iraq, even as administration officials argued that the existing deployment is sufficient and a new poll showed that nearly half of Americans want to withdraw the forces already in the field.
Appearing on Sunday television shows, several prominent senators from both parties called on Bush to bolster forces in Iraq and accelerate efforts to restore basic services to the war-ravaged nation.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), returning from a trip to Iraq, called on Bush to send “at least another division” -- which could mean an additional 17,000 troops.
“We are in a very serious situation ... a race against time,” McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We need to spend a whole lot more money to get services back to the people. We need to get the electricity going, the fuel, the water. And unless we get that done and get it done pretty soon, we could face a very [serious] situation.”
Administration officials rejected the call for bolstered forces. Asked on CNN’s “Late Edition” if more troops were needed, L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator for Iraq, replied, “I don’t think so.”
The remarks came as a bomb exploded at the home of one of Iraq’s preeminent Shiite Muslim clerics in the southern city of Najaf, killing three guards and wounding 10 other people. The cleric, the Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed Hakim, escaped serious injury.
In Washington, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said stabilizing Iraq would require at least 40,000 more troops -- and financial commitments totaling “several hundred billion dollars” over the next several years.
Biden argued that the only realistic way to meet such military and financial obligations was through a new U.N. resolution that would encourage other countries to participate.
“We have to have a U.N. resolution,” Biden said on “Meet the Press.” “So I don’t know why we don’t get on with it.... [Either] we do it all by ourselves or we get the rest of the international community to help us do it. It’s that simple.”
Without offering a specific figure, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also said that the U.S.-led occupation authority needs more forces.
Asked on “Late Edition” if the U.S. had enough troops in Iraq, Lugar said: “Perhaps not, and probably not the right ones.... We are not configured as a nation in our armed forces or the State Department to deal with nation-building. “
The continued violence in Iraq has become an increasingly ominous political problem for Bush in the nearly four months since he declared an end to major combat May 1.
Since Bush appeared before a banner reading “mission accomplished” that day, 137 U.S. troops have died in Iraq from hostile fire and other causes, and the Democratic presidential candidates are aggressively accusing the administration of failing to adequately plan for the Iraq reconstruction. Lately, some leading Republicans, including McCain, Lugar and Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, have also said that the U.S. needs to rethink its effort in Iraq.
“It will take a concerted new plan” to calm the situation, Lugar said Sunday.
Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell began discussions at the United Nations aimed at passing a resolution that would broaden international participation in the occupation. But his call received a cool response amid complaints from other nations that the Bush administration was asking them to assume responsibility without offering to meaningfully share authority.
At a Washington news conference Thursday, Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said the coalition has enough forces in Iraq to secure the country. The U.S. has 146,000 troops in Iraq, while 27 other nations have contributed 21,700 -- more than half from Britain.
On Sunday, other U.S. officials echoed that conclusion. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he rejected arguments that the coalition cannot secure Iraq without significantly more troops, although he acknowledged that he would defer to Abizaid’s judgment.
“If Gen. Abizaid says he wants more troops, then sure, we’ll be open to that, you bet,” Myers said on “Meet the Press.”
Clock Is Ticking
But McCain, Biden and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who is contemplating a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, all argued Sunday that Iraq could grow even more chaotic and dangerous if the occupation authority cannot quickly improve daily life there.
“Time is not on our side,” McCain said. “People in 125- degree heat with no electricity and no fuel are going to become angry in a big hurry.... What we do over the next several months will determine whether we’re in a very difficult situation or not.”
Clark, who said he will announce a decision on whether he will join the crowded Democratic presidential field “sometime in the next week or two,” argued that the best way to improve security in Iraq is to increase international participation in the rebuilding.
“This is much more than a military problem,” Clark said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “The military security ... is a fundamental. [But] you have to have a political development strategy above it. For that, we really need the legitimacy of the United Nations. We need a U.N. mission in there.”
Howard Dean, another Democratic presidential contender, made similar arguments on “Late Edition.” Dean said the administration must “give up some authority over the occupation” to entice other nations to increase their military and financial support for the effort.
“We desperately need this not to be an American occupation,” said Dean, a former Vermont governor. “We need this to be something more like a U.N. mandate, a temporary occupation by world forces in order to bring Iraq into a democratized situation.”
A new poll released this weekend by Newsweek showed enormous public support for increasing the U.N. role in Iraq -- and a continuing rise in anxiety over the direction of the reconstruction.
In the poll, 52% of respondents said the occupation was going well, while 44% said it was going badly; in late July, the figures were 57% and 40%. Nearly three in four said the U.S. should cede more authority to the U.N. if that was necessary to encourage other nations to send more troops to Iraq.
An emphatic majority -- 55% to 40% -- said they opposed sending more American troops to the country; perhaps most worrisome for the White House, 48% of those polled said the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Iraq, while 47% rejected that option.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Baghdad contributed to this report.