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Kerry Accuses President of 'Historic' Mistakes in Iraq

Bush says his rival's pointed attack marks another shift in an ever-changing position.

September 21, 2004|Matea Gold and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Accusing President Bush of creating "a crisis of historic proportions" in Iraq, Sen. John F. Kerry on Monday said the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein was not worth the chaos that has ensued.

Kerry, offering his most sweeping and detailed attack on Bush's handling of Iraq, said the president had "failed to tell the truth" about his reasons for going to war and about its cost in troops and money. He termed the war a "profound diversion" from the fight against "our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden," that had left Americans less secure.

"In Iraq, this administration has consistently over-promised and under-performed," Kerry said. "This policy has been plagued by a lack of planning, an absence of candor, arrogance and outright incompetence. And the president has held no one accountable, including himself."

Bush quickly fired back at his Democratic rival, repeating his claims that Kerry had taken shifting and contradictory positions on Iraq.

"Apparently, [Kerry] woke up this morning and has now decided, 'No, we should not have invaded Iraq' -- after just last month saying he still would have voted for force, even knowing everything we know today," Bush told supporters in Derry, N.H. "Incredibly, he now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein in power, not in prison."

Kerry has struggled during the campaign to clearly differentiate his stance on Iraq from Bush's policy. Kerry flummoxed even some of his own supporters with his comment in August -- to which Bush was referring Monday -- that he still would have voted to give the president authority to invade Iraq had he known then that the country had no weapons of mass destruction.

But Kerry's speech Monday at New York University represented his most pointed effort to draw distinctions with Bush on Iraq. His remarks came in the wake of polls showing that Bush's credentials on national security were his strong suit among voters.

The recent surveys have found that Bush's stature as commander in chief has risen, even amid an upsurge in violence in Iraq and escalating concerns among U.S. lawmakers that stability there remains elusive.

The grim news from Iraq continued Monday, with the apparent beheading of an American construction contractor who had been kidnapped by militants last week in Baghdad.

Iraq promises to remain at center stage today, as Bush delivers his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, many of whose members oppose the U.S.-led war. Later in the week, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is scheduled to address both the United Nations and a joint session of the U.S. Congress, in which he is expected to offer assurances about his government and the direction Iraq is heading.

The latest clash between the two presidential candidates over Iraq exemplified the broader message each was pushing with election day six weeks away. Bush has argued that his rival vacillates too often to be trusted as a leader, whereas Kerry has contended that the president lacks sound judgment.

Although Kerry's campaign had said it would focus more on domestic matters this month and next, advisors decided he also needed to intensify his criticism of the administration's foreign policy. They think that Bush's handling of Iraq reinforces their argument that he makes bad decisions.

"This goes to his character," said Joe Lockhart, a senior advisor to Kerry. "When you look at Iraq, there's nothing that does it better. Every decision [the administration] made has been the wrong one."

Kerry aides said their potential opening was evident in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, which found that about 80% of those surveyed believe Bush was either "hiding something" or "mostly lying" in talking about the war in Iraq. But, underscoring Kerry's challenge in swaying voters, 60% of respondents in the same poll said they were not confident Kerry would deal wisely with an international crisis.

The Massachusetts senator attempted to change that impression Monday, using his speech to a receptive audience to lay out a four-point plan for improving conditions in Iraq.

Kerry called on the president to persuade international leaders to contribute more troops and money to secure the country, and to expand the training of Iraq's security forces.

Additionally, he said Bush must accelerate the development of the country's infrastructure in a way "that finally brings tangible benefits to the Iraqi people," and that the U.S. should take stronger steps to protect next year's scheduled elections in Iraq.

"If the president would move in this direction ... we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years," Kerry said. "If we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight."

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