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Posted 11/5/2003 5:44 PM     Updated 11/6/2003 10:07 PM
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McCain: Force levels in Iraq inadequate
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain sharply criticized the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war Wednesday, saying the United States should send at least 15,000 more troops or risk "the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam."

"Victory can be our only exit strategy," said McCain, one of the strongest supporters of the war.

McCain also challenged Defense Secretary Donald Rumfeld's assertion that the 132,000 American troops in Iraq can defeat the insurgency in the country. "The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives."

Meanwhile, Defense Department officials announced a plan for rotating U.S. troops in Iraq next year that includes a return of the Marine Corps and a net reduction in the total American force.

And Thursday, Democratic presidential contender Wesley Clark will deliver a speech summarizing his four-pronged plan to win the war and bring U.S. troops home. In a speech prepared for delivery at South Carolina State University, Clark says the United States should bring in foreign help, reconfigure the military forces serving in Iraq, give Iraqis a stake in the country's success and rebuild partnerships with European allies.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, is known for his independent streak. A Vietnam War veteran, he spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi and is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was defeated by Bush in a tough battle for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 and has in the past criticized the president on a number of issues.

McCain said Bush must be more involved in Iraq decision-making and not be influenced by the upcoming presidential campaign.

"As Lincoln and Truman demonstrated, American presidents cannot always leave decisions on matters of supreme national interest to their subordinates," McCain told the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

McCain's speech reflects growing concern among Republican supporters of the war that the administration is seeking to keep troop levels down to help President Bush's re-election campaign.

But Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita said U.S. commanders "still believe that they have the right troop levels."

Asked whether Bush would send more troops if generals requested them, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "The stakes are high, and the president is committed to doing what it takes to achieve a free, peaceful and prosperous Iraq."

The Pentagon Thursday planned to order thousands of active duty and National Guard and Reserve troops to prepare for service in Iraq next year. The troops will be part of a replacement influx that will include a return of the Marines who left in September, officials said Wednesday. But Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the Pentagon hopes to decrease U.S. forces in Iraq to just over 100,000 by May.

McCain called it "irresponsible" to suggest "it is up to Iraqis to win this war" and criticized Rumsfeld for trying to accelerate a turnover of the burden to Iraqi security forces. He warned that proposing a reduction in U.S. forces now "will cripple our ability" to stabilize Iraq by sending a signal "that the United States is more interested in leaving than...winning."

"It will require a commitment to do what is necessary militarily, to deploy as many American forces for as long as it takes, to ignore the political calendar and to trust Iraqis with a greater degree of authority to manage their own affairs," McCain said.

McCain and Bush have had a testy relationship since the 2000 presidential campaign.

Although McCain has risen to Bush's defense, supporting him on the war, for example, he has also challenged the president. He recently criticized the administration for withholding documents from the committee investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

McCain also said in his remarks:

• Iraq differs from Vietnam because opposition to the United States is confined to the so-called Sunni Triangle and isn't widespread, as it was in Vietnam. But U.S. forces could still lose if "we lose popular support" at home.

• The U.S.-led administration of Paul Bremer is not working as a partner to the Iraqi Governing Council it appointed but often hands out orders. "The United States will not succeed if the Governing Council fails," McCain said.

• Democratic presidential candidates, apart from Iraq war supporters Richard Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, should not allow partisanship to affect their views of the war.

• Existing U.S. regular forces, reservists and National Guard members can handle the Iraq situation, but "we have to increase the size of the military in the long run" to contend with growing threats to U.S. national security.

Asked why Iraq was so important, McCain said the global menaces of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction make success there more crucial than in Vietnam. "If you allow the status quo to prevail in the Middle East, I don't see an end to the production of terrorists," he said.

Contributing: Dave Moniz, Richard Benedetto and The Associated Press