CINCINNATI - Sen. John Kerry charged yesterday that the Bush administration has politicized the transfer of power in Iraq, calling the June 30 deadline to hand control of the country back to the Iraqis a "fiction," arbitrarily selected with an eye toward the November presidential election.
"I think that they want us to get the troops out and get the transfer out of the way as fast as possible without regard to the stability of Iraq," Kerry told reporters after his first public campaign rally since undergoing shoulder surgery last week.
But when Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, was pressed about what he would do differently than President Bush to resolve the situation in Iraq, he fell back on his long-standing - and not very specific - response: Bring in other countries to help.
"There are so many things you could do differently in Iraq that it's hard to know where to begin in terms of that list," Kerry said during a news conference here. "Most important is to get the international community involved, because you have to change the entire dynamic of an uprising and the entire dynamic of an American occupation."
The Massachusetts senator's comments on the campaign trail came against a backdrop of growing violence in Iraq.
A fierce firefight in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi, where support for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is strong, reportedly left a dozen Marines dead and 20 others wounded yesterday. Three days of fighting in Sunni and Shiite Muslim areas has claimed the lives of 30 Americans and at least 120 Iraqis.
Kerry used the term "fiction" to describe the June 30 deadline for U.S. occupation forces to hand over control of the country to an interim Iraqi government during an interview taped yesterday for broadcast today on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He amplified those comments in interviews with local broadcast reporters in Cincinnati and during a brief news conference.
"I hope that date has nothing to do with the election here in the United States," Kerry said. "The test of a turnover of sovereignty is the stability of Iraq, not an arbitrary date."
He called the escalating violence "deeply disturbing to all of us," and said during the news conference that U.S. efforts in the country "have to be successful." The way to success in Iraq, he said, is to pursue a policy "that brings all nations to the table to understand the stakes."
"This administration has yet to provide Americans with a thorough understanding of exactly who we are turning the authority over to and precisely what the consequences of that will be," said Kerry, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1985. "And I think Americans are owed an explanation."
With U.S. military forces and civilians under siege in some parts of Iraq in recent days, Kerry appears to sense a political opening to confront the president more aggressively. His comments yesterday were his harshest to date of the Bush administration's plan to establish a new government structure in Iraq and provide an exit strat- egy for American military forces.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, called Kerry's comments just "another example of John Kerry playing politics with the war in Iraq."
Schmidt noted that Kerry has felt political pressure from Democratic primary voters to run on an antiwar plank. Kerry voted in favor of the congressional resolution giving Bush authority to use force in Iraq, but then voted against $87 billion in additional funding for the war effort.
Kerry's comments on Iraq overshadowed the stated purpose of his first full day on the campaign trail in a week. The campaign is trying to broaden its focus this week from job creation to fiscal responsibility. It was the theme of Kerry's rally on the banks of the Ohio River. And he promised it would be the thrust of a speech he was scheduled to give today in Washington - a day when he was to unveil his version of a 2005 federal budget.
Kerry has acknowledged that he will have to scale back some of the programs he proposed during his primary campaign, a change he said is necessary because of a ballooning deficit that he attributes to Bush adminis- tration spending.
"The Bush administration has not just run up the deficit with respect to the budget," he said. "They've run up a truth deficit in the United States of America."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.