WASHINGTON -- President Bush, seeking yesterday to dismiss suggestions that the United States ended the war with Iraq too soon, disputed a claim by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf that the senior military commander had urged greater destruction of the Iraqi army.
The rare public disagreement, sparked by the general's comments in a television interview taped for broadcast last night, occurred as the Bush administration defended on several fronts its policy not to interfere with the Iraqi military's violent suppression of rebel forces.
Mr. Bush predicted yesterday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein probably would not be able to survive the turmoil within his nation.
"There is enough dissent and disorder that it appears Iraqi citizens are trying to do something about this," the president said. "I think you would have to put him down as fairly doubtful."
General Schwarzkopf, in a television interview with David Frost, suggested that Iraqi forces loyal to Mr. Hussein would have been left much weaker -- and less capable of crushing uprisings -- if the ground offensive against Iraq had not ended on Feb. 28 -- 100 hours after it began.
"Frankly, my recommendation had been . . . continue the march," General Schwarzkopf said. "I mean, we had them in a rout, and we could have continued to, you know, reap great destruction on them. We could have completely closed the door and made it in fact a battle of annihilation."
But Mr. Bush "made the decision . . . we should stop at a given time, at a given place, that did leave some escape routes open for them to get back out, and I think that was a very humane decision and a very courageous decision on his part, also," General Schwarzkopf said.
"There were obviously a lot of people who escaped who wouldn't have escaped, if the decision hadn't been made, you know, to stop us where we were at that time," he added.
Mr. Bush, who learned of the general's comments before the broadcast, flatly contradicted his own commander.
"I do not think there was any difference between any of us -- me, [Defense Secretary Dick] Cheney, [Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin L.] Powell, Schwarzkopf," Mr. Bush told reporters who accompanied him to Bethesda Naval Hospital for his annual physical examination. "There was total agreement in terms of when this war should end."
The president's comments came a day after he and his war council concluded that U.S. forces should stay out the civil strife in Iraq.
He noted that the Iraqi government's use of helicopters as gunships to fight the rebels, which he warned against two weeks ago, was not covered by the United Nations Security Council resolutions that served as the mandate for Desert Storm. Thus, he and his advisers have concluded that they have no authority to shoot the helicopters down unless they appear to be threatening coalition forces.
Once the Security Council completes work on a permanent cease-fire resolution, which is expected shortly, Mr. Bush said, "That will take care of the U.S. role.
"I want to get our forces home as soon as I can," he added. "I want to get them out of Iraq as soon as I can. I think you'll see they'll come out very fast when we get this cease-fire."
The president said he was not aware of any requests for U.S. help from Iraqi dissidents.
But he predicted that the unrest, which is being prompted by Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq and Kurdish rebels in the north, would probably topple Mr. Hussein on its own.
"People are fed up with him; they see him for the brutal dictator that he is," Mr. Bush said. "With this much turmoil, it seems to me unlikely he can survive."
Mr. Bush's more detached view of the Iraqi political situation came after the prospect of U.S. involvement in the Iraqi rebellion raised alarms in the anti-Iraq coalition and among politicians at home. Both argue that such intervention would go beyond the mission of liberating Kuwait and that it might delay the return of U.S. forces from the Middle East.
The White House is also eager, however, to avoid the opposite impression that the United States is now siding with Mr. Hussein against the rebels.
"You can find scenarios that say inaction helps the Kurds, helps the Shiites, helps Iran, helps Saddam, helps everybody," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday. "We simply aren't going to take a position."
At the Pentagon, Mr. Cheney also moved to defend the administration's conduct in the region. In a written statement responding to General Schwarzkopf's comments, Mr. Cheney called the president's decision to end the ground war "correct and courageous."
The decision "was coordinated with and concurred in" by the general, who raised no objections to ending the ground war, Mr. Cheney said.
"General Schwarzkopf and General Powell were consulted and made the recommendation to me and to the president that we had achieved our military objectives and agreed that it was time to end the campaign," Mr. Cheney said. "The president and I spoke personally with General Schwarzkopf that evening to congratulate him on the outstanding success of the campaign. He raised no objection to terminating hostilities."
Earlier this week, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams defended the temporary cease-fire with Iraq by asserting that the Iraqi army would have been equipped to fight rebels even if the U.S. offensive had lasted longer.
"Even if the ground war had continued and we destroyed every last piece [of weaponry], they would still have a military. Not every single item of the military, not every member of the military force, not every armored personnel carrier or artillery tube was in the Kuwaiti theater of operations," Mr. Williams said.
In the interview, General Schwarzkopf predicted that Mr. Bush's cease-fire decision would be one "that historians are going to second-guess, you know, forever. Why didn't we go for one more day versus why did we stop when we did, when we had them completely routed? We are already getting the questions."