NEW YORK - Ralph Nader delivered a strong call last night for the United States to withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year, a stand that threatens to lure anti-war voters to his independent presidential campaign and away from Democrat John Kerry.
In an early evening speech before the prestigious Council of Foreign Relations in New York, Nader said Iraq faces a choice between two futures. In one, he said, Iraq could stay on its current course and remain a "puppet regime" under Washington's control. Or, he said, "we could declare a set date for corporate and military withdrawal - let's say the end of the year."
The independent presidential candidate also called for replacing U.S. forces with a U.N. peacekeeping force, though the United Nations hasn't agreed to such a plan and Nader is in no position to negotiate it.
Nader argued that his plan would restore stability to Iraq and make it easier to conduct internationally supervised elections and continue rebuilding and distributing humanitarian aid. Nader also called for the withdrawal of U.S. corporations, such as Halliburton, that have won lucrative contracts from the Bush administration to oversee Iraq's reconstruction.
Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, also calls for greater involvement in Iraq by the United Nations and NATO troops, but unlike Nader, he hasn't called for withdrawal of U.S. forces by a certain date. Instead, Kerry emphasizes that American troops must stay indefinitely because U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East would be at risk if Iraq slides into civil war and radical Muslims expand their influence.
That stand opens Kerry's campaign to possible defections by anti-war voters, such as those who rallied last winter to the anti-war banner of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
"It's issue No. 1 in Nader's arsenal," said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., one of the 18 or so "swing" states that could tilt either way in November in a close election. "If there is any issue that's going to peel voters away from Kerry to Nader, it's the war.
"It makes sense for him to push it," added Schier, "because potentially 20 percent of Kerry's base may find this issue so distasteful they'll turn to Nader."
Kerry huddled privately with Nader in Washington last week. Afterward, Nader said he had told Kerry that he needs to make a case for an exit strategy from Iraq, and Nader said Kerry had indicated that he would. Kerry aides denied that such an exchange took place.
Nader also called last night for Bush's impeachment, saying he prosecuted a war under false pretenses.
"To say Bush has exaggerated the threat of Saddam Hussein is pretty much commonly accepted," Nader said. "The fabrications, deceptions and prevarications rise to high crimes and misdemeanors, and warrant impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives."
Some Democrats are worried enough about Nader to act. One effort, called www.StopNader.com, said yesterday that within 10 days it will begin airing a television ad in critical swing states, arguing that a vote for Nader is in effect a vote for Bush.
A similar group launched www.thenaderfactor.com. last week. The group is funding television ads in Wisconsin and Arizona that feature people who voted for Nader in 2000 and regret it, saying their votes helped elect Bush.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California, said Nader's momentum would be meaningless if he fails to qualify to appear on state ballots. Nader's independent efforts haven't qualified him to be on the ballot in any state, though the Reform Party's recent endorsement of his candidacy gives him ballot access in seven states.