Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last month that there were too few troops in Iraq, according to people familiar with official records of the meeting.
Powell made his assertion during one in a series of intense discussions on Iraq between Bush and Blair this fall. Those sessions, which have largely been kept secret, indicate that there was a tough debate behind closed doors as the Bush administration reexamined its handling of Iraq in the wake of Bush's reelection victory. Less than three weeks after the White House meeting, the Pentagon announced that it would boost the U.S. military presence in Iraq by 12,000 troops, to 150,000.
The discussions between the two leaders have gone on in recent months in a series of videoconferences that have been considered so sensitive that the transcripts of the meetings are destroyed after other senior officials read them. The disclosure of the sessions indicates that, privately, there has been more concern at the top levels of the Bush administration about the conduct of the U.S. mission there than officials have shown publicly. It also shows Powell taking an unusual role for a secretary of state, advising the president on a military issue.
Powell made his remarks on Nov. 12, just 10 days after the end of a presidential campaign in which Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and his decision to limit troop levels there had been a major issue. Powell announced his intention to resign his post three days later but submitted his letter of resignation on the day of the Blair meeting.
Accounts differ about the details of Powell's remarks. One U.S. official said that Powell flatly stated: "We don't have enough troops. We don't control the terrain."
But a senior State Department official familiar with the exchange said that Powell was less pointed, raising the issue in the context of continuing conversations that focused on the turmoil in the Sunni Triangle, the Iraqi elections scheduled for next month, and the shape and size of the U.S.-led military presence in the country. This official said Powell spoke about the size not only of the U.S. presence but also of the British and Iraqi forces.
"They were talking about the security situation," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing diplomacy. "They asked Powell his opinion."
The secretary of state, who is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded by invoking his background as an infantry officer. He said the key task in warfare is to dominate the ground and control the situation. Overall, Powell concluded, according to this official, the number of troops -- U.S., coalition and Iraqi -- was insufficient to ensure such control.
Powell's influence unclear
The conversation, which took place on the fifth day of a major U.S. offensive to retake Fallujah, then turned to the issue of Iraqi security forces and the troubles that have been encountered in developing local forces that have confidence and leadership. "They looked especially at the training and how they could expand the Iraqi forces -- and that the situation would be difficult until they could do that," the State Department official said. "The emphasis was on getting Iraqi forces."
Both officials who discussed the meeting noted that the president a few weeks later decided to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in an effort to improve security before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for the end of January. It is not clear how much Powell's comments influenced that decision. Nor is it clear whether the boost in troop strength by 12,000 has fully addressed Powell's concerns.
In a White House news conference and in other public appearances that day, top officials gave no hint that they had discussed whether troop levels in Iraq were adequate.
In their public comments on Nov. 12, neither Bush nor Blair alluded to the troop levels in Iraq. At a joint news conference, Bush warned that, as the Iraqi elections draw near, "the desperation of the killers will grow, and the violence could escalate."
Blair said: "We have to complete our mission in Iraq, make sure that Iraq is a stable and democratic country." Most of the news conference focused not on Iraq but on efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The session is also revealing of Powell's peculiar role in the administration, as a longtime Washington insider who has achieved outsider status on the issue of Iraq. His qualms about going to war there have long been known, but his concerns about the conduct of the occupation are only beginning to emerge.
Powell's comments are just the latest revelation in a long-running debate over troop levels in Iraq, which have been controversial since before the beginning of the war in March 2003. During the run-up to the war, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, told a congressional committee that he was concerned that the planned occupation force was too small.
Powell himself had also privately expressed concern about troop levels. In September 2002, according to Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, one of the chief architects of the plan, Powell called Franks to say, "I've got problems with force size and support of that force, given such long lines of communication." Franks relates the call in his memoir, "American Soldier."
But the concerns Powell raised at the White House meeting had to do not with the war plan but with the composition of the current occupation force. They echoed the worries raised in the fall by L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the U.S.-led occupation government until the handover of political power on June 28.
"The single most important change -- the one thing that would have improved the situation -- would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation, Bremer said in September, according to the Banner-Graphic in Greencastle, Ind.
A spokesman for the British Embassy declined to comment.