Kerry fights back with plan to handle war on terrorism

Seven-point proposal stresses offensive tactics

Election 2004

September 25, 2004|By Peter Wallsten and Edwin Chen | Peter Wallsten and Edwin Chen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PHILADELPHIA - Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry accused President Bush yesterday of undermining the war on terrorism by shifting focus from al-Qaida 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 interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi 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 re-election campaign, even though his U.S. visit comes at a time when more than 60 U.S. service personnel have been killed in Iraq in the past 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-Qaida, 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 new Time magazine poll released yesterday showed that the president's lead over Kerry had slipped to 6 percent, with 48 percent of likely voters for Bush and 42 percent for Kerry. In a Time poll two weeks ago, Bush was 11 percentage points ahead of Kerry. Another 5 percent of the likely voters said they would vote for Ralph Nader.

The exchange yesterday likely portends the tone Bush and Kerry will try to have Thursday 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 to prepare for the debate.

Kerry's attacks on the president's Iraq policy have come amid a flare-up of violence there, 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 also offered a seven-point plan that he said would refocus the effort to curb terror.

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 United States is 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" through the Arab and Muslim world and would target foreign aid to failing states to prevent them from fomenting and harboring terrorists.

Bringing perhaps the loudest cheer of the day, Kerry criticized the Saudi Arabian government for failing to prosecute terrorist 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."

Kerry ridiculed U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for his assertion during a congressional hearing earlier this week that the Iraqi elections scheduled for January should go forward - even if only portions of the country could vote.

" So be it, nothing's perfect in life,'" Kerry quoted Rumsfeld as saying. "If there was any doubt that the leaders of the Bush administration are living in a fantasy world of spin, I think Secretary Rumsfeld put that doubt to rest."

In Wisconsin, Bush talked about the need to invade Iraq and called that war a central battleground in the fight against terrorism.

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