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Candidates Spar Over Security

Bush suggests his rival is unfit to help Iraq. Kerry says the war on terror should target Al Qaeda.

September 25, 2004|Peter Wallsten and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

PHILADELPHIA — Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry accused President Bush on Friday of undermining the war on terrorism by shifting focus from Al Qaeda to Iraq, and he also unveiled his own plan to "capture or kill the terrorists, crush their movements and free the world from fear."

President Bush continued his efforts to diminish Kerry's national security credentials, attacking the Massachusetts senator for saying Thursday that Bush and Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, had presented a misleadingly optimistic view of the situation in Iraq.

Bush suggested that Kerry's criticism of Allawi made him unfit for the job of helping transform Iraq into a peaceful democracy.

"You can't lead this country if your ally in Iraq feels like we question his credibility," Bush told supporters in Janesville, Wis. "The message ought to be to the Iraqi people: We support you. The message ought to be loud and clear: We'll stand with you if you do the hard work."

Allawi's upbeat speeches have echoed the key themes of Bush's reelection campaign, despite the fact that his U.S. visit comes at a time when more than 60 U.S. service personnel have been killed in Iraq in the last month.

Kerry's remarks, coming six days before his first debate with Bush, punctuated a week in which he repeatedly attacked the president on the issue polls show him strongest on: national security.

"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority," Kerry told a group of students and faculty at Temple University.

"The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy, Al Qaeda, which killed more than 3,000 people on 9/11 and which still plots our destruction today. And there's just no question about it: The president's misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq will make the war on terror harder to win."

Until Labor Day, the Kerry campaign had been saying it intended to focus on jobs, healthcare and other domestic issues, but his standing on national security issues and terrorism has been lagging in the polls. Aides now believe Kerry can take advantage of an upsurge of violence in Iraq to press his case that Bush has mismanaged the situation.

As the two candidates were squaring off in their speeches, a Time magazine poll released Friday showed that the president's lead over Kerry had slipped to 6 percentage points, with 48% of likely voters for Bush and 42% for Kerry. In a Time poll two weeks ago, Bush was 11 percentage points ahead of Kerry. Another 5% of the likely voters said they would vote for Ralph Nader.

The exchange Friday likely portends the tone Bush and Kerry will try to strike Thursday at their highly anticipated encounter at the University of Miami, when they match up in the first of three scheduled debates. The focus of the first debate will be foreign policy.

Both candidates plan to take breaks from the campaign trail this weekend, in part to prepare for the debate.

Kerry's attacks on the president's Iraq policy have come amid a flare-up of violence in that country, including the beheadings this week of two American civilians. A newly disclosed CIA report, provided to the White House in July, offered a largely pessimistic view for the future of Iraq.

"Iraq is now what it was not before the war: a haven for terrorists," Kerry said.

Kerry's comments during a daylong visit to Philadelphia underscored his campaign's efforts to separate Iraq from the larger fight against terrorism, attempting to counter what had been a successful effort by the White House to portray Iraq as a central battleground in the war on terrorism.

Grappling with a hoarse voice, Kerry assailed Bush, saying he made the "wrong choice" at every step -- by "outsourcing" the hunt for Osama bin Laden to "Afghan warlords, who let [him] slip away"; by invading Iraq without finishing the work in Afghanistan; and by initially opposing the creation of a Department of Homeland Security and an independent commission to study the Sept. 11 attacks.

Kerry offered a seven-point plan that he said would refocus the effort to curb terrorism. He pledged to modernize and expand the military, hunt for nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union and spend billions of dollars to tighten security for borders, chemical plants, ports and trains.

Kerry said he would hurt terrorist recruiting by persuading the Muslim world that the U.S. was the "champion, not the enemy, of their legitimate yearning to live in just and peaceful societies." He said he would "promote the development of free and democratic societies" in the Arab and Muslim world, and would target aid to failing states to prevent them from fomenting and harboring terrorists.

Bringing perhaps the loudest cheer of the day, Kerry criticized Saudi Arabia for failing to prosecute terrorists' financiers.

"I will grant no one -- no country, no sweetheart relationship -- a free pass," he said. "As president, I will do what President Bush has not done: I will hold the Saudis accountable."

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