Kennedy says Iraq war should be `a last resort'

Premature action would weaken campaign against terrorism, senator argues

September 28, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said yesterday that the United States should not go to war against Iraq until all reasonable alternatives had been tried, and that premature military action would weaken the worldwide campaign against terrorism.

"There are realistic alternatives between doing nothing and declaring unilateral or immediate war," said the Massachusetts senator, in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "War should be a last resort, not the first response."

Kennedy became the third prominent Democrat in recent days to deliver a speech questioning the president's rush toward war with Iraq. He delivered it as the White House and congressional leaders neared accord on a resolution of support for President Bush in dealing with Saddam Hussein, including the use of military force, if necessary.

In a speech at a Houston fund-raising event the night before, the president continued his drumbeat that Hussein must be ousted, and added a personal reason to target the Iraqi leader.

"This is the guy that tried to kill my dad at one time," Bush said, recalling that Hussein plotted to assassinate President George Bush after the Persian Gulf war.

"I truly believe that history has called and we must act," said Bush.

But Kennedy voiced fears that a unilateral military strike by the United States would weaken its position in the Middle East and around the world and perhaps impel Hussein to use weapons of mass destruction in desperation.

"I begin with the strongest possible affirmation that good and decent people of all sides of this debate, who may, in the end, stand on opposing sides of this decision, are equally committed to our national security," Kennedy said.

That was an obvious, though somewhat oblique, reference to the verbal clashes between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders that have punctuated the debate over Iraq this week, a debate likely to become more heated.

Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, the House majority whip, called Kennedy's address "the most thorough and cohesive argument for complacency so far."

Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the minority leader, said Kennedy's proposals would set up a "series of hurdles" for the United States, and he asserted that the United Nations had not enforced its own edicts against Iraq in the past 11 years.

Kennedy said the United States should press for exhaustive, uncompromising and unconditional inspections by the United Nations to ensure that Iraq was disarmed once and for all. He said Bush should adhere to the precepts he outlined in his recent speech, when he called on the international organization to enforce its resolutions against Iraq.

The president's speech was "powerful, and for me it was persuasive," Kennedy said. In contrast, the senator went on, "the administration has not made a convincing case that we face such an imminent threat to our national security that a unilateral, pre-emptive American strike and an immediate war are necessary."

Kennedy differed sharply with two arguments the administration has advanced for quick action against the Iraqi regime.

One is that toppling Hussein would be part of the anti-terrorism campaign the United States has been waging since Sept. 11, 2001. The other administration argument is that there are undeniable links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaida terrorists.

Kennedy argued that not only would U.S. resources be spread too thinly but that international support for the United States would also wane.

As for ties between Baghdad and al-Qaida, which the administration says are unmistakable, Kennedy said, "To the contrary, there is no clear and convincing pattern of Iraqi relations with either al-Qaida or the Taliban."

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