In remarks published Tuesday, the official, L. Paul Bremer, said he arrived in Iraq on May 6, 2003 to find "horrid" looting and a very unstable situation.
"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," Bremer said during an address to an insurance group in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The group released a summary of his remarks in Washington.
"We never had enough troops on the ground," Bremer said, while insisting that he was "more convinced than ever that regime change was the right thing to do."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to say whether Bremer had pleaded with President Bush for more troops. "We never get into reading out all the conversations they had," McClellan said.
Later, in an unusual public acknowledgment of internal dissent, the Bush campaign said that Bremer and the military brass had clashed on troop levels.
"Ambassador Bremer differed with the commanders in the field," said campaign spokesman Brian Jones. "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."
Mr. Bush's Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, quickly seized on Bremer's remarks. On a campaign stop in Iowa, Kerry said the president had made wrong choices "time and again when he had a chance to be able to protect us more effectively."
The president "didn't put enough troops in" Iraq after the first fighting brought down Saddam Hussein's government, Kerry said. "Now Paul Bremer is saying what a terrible mistake it was. The president needs to take accountability for his own judgments."
Earlier Tuesday, Kerry pointed to Bremer's remarks as he called on Vice President Dick Cheney to acknowledge mistakes made in Iraq in tonight's debate with Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.
"I hope tonight Mr. Cheney can acknowledge those mistakes," he said. "I hope Mr. Cheney can take responsibility."
In a statement Monday night to The Washington Post, Bremer said he fully supported the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq.
"I believe that we currently have sufficient troop levels in Iraq," he said in the e-mailed statement, according to Tuesday's edition of the Post. He said references to troops levels related to the situation when he first arrived in Baghdad "when I believed we needed either more coalition troops or Iraqi security forces to address the looting."
Bremer addressed the Insurance Leadership Forum, at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Portions of the speech were made available Monday night through a press release from the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers.
In an earlier speech Sept. 17 at DePauw University, Bremer said he frequently raised the issue of too few troops within the Bush administration and "should have been even more insistent" when his advice was rejected. "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, according to the Banner-Graphic in Greencastle, Ind.
The tempest over Bremer's remarks was the second in two days involving statements on Iraq by a top administration official. On Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a speech that he knew of no clear link between the al Qaeda terror network and Saddam Hussein, although he later backed off the statement and said he was misunderstood.
Asked to describe the connection between Saddam and al Qaeda at an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pentagon chief first refused to answer, then said: "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."
Several hours after his appearance, Rumsfeld issued a statement from the Pentagon saying his comment "regrettably was misunderstood" by some. He said he has said since September 2002 that there were ties between Osama bin Laden's terror group and Iraq.