Kerry Accuses Bush of Deception on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry drew on the war he knows best Thursday as he pressed his criticism of President Bush’s handling of the conflict in Iraq, charging that the administration was withholding the truth about the situation there from the American public.

The Democratic presidential candidate lashed out at his rival, recalling the sense of betrayal Americans felt at the end of the Vietnam War.

“I fought in a war when we weren’t told the truth, and I know the consequences, and so does America,” Kerry said outside a Columbus firehouse, returning to a theme he had been mentioning less on the campaign trail.


Emphasizing repeatedly that he wants the U.S. to be victorious in Iraq, the Massachusetts senator argued that Bush’s leadership would not deliver success.

“The president says that things are getting better in Iraq, and we must just stay the same course,” he said. “Well, I disagree. They’re not getting better. And we need to change the course to protect our troops and to win.”

“A president’s true test of leadership is how he responds when things are going wrong,” Kerry added. “You need to be prepared to tell the truth, and I think a president who fails to admit his mistakes is a president who proves that he doesn’t know how to make the course correct.”

Vice President Dick Cheney sharply criticized Kerry’s remarks. “John Kerry is trying to tear down all the good that has been accomplished, and his words are destructive to our effort in Iraq and in the global war on terror,” Cheney said.

It was the fourth straight day that the debate over the conditions in Iraq dominated the presidential campaign.

The latest exchanges came as two national polls showed Bush leading in the race, but by varying margins. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave Bush a slight lead over his challenger, 48% to 45% in a matchup including independent candidate Ralph Nader. A CBS News poll showed Bush leading Kerry 49% to 41% in a three-way matchup. Both polls have an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Other recent polls have shown the president strengthening his position in several of the race’s most competitive states.

Kerry said the Bush administration was “in disarray,” noting that the president’s remark Wednesday that Iraq was plagued by a handful of terrorists contradicted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s previous statements that the country had attracted many terrorists, as well as Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s acknowledgment this week that terrorists were “pouring” into Iraq.

Kerry said that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had misled Americans about the number of Iraqi troops that had been trained by first saying there were 210,000 Iraqi security forces, and then changing his estimate to 95,000.

Citing a recent State Department report, Kerry said the number of trained soldiers was 5,000.

“It’s a disgrace that the secretary of Defense doesn’t tell the truth to the American people, and it’s a disgrace that this president doesn’t hold anybody in his administration accountable for failure,” he said. “These are not small miscalculations. These are miscalculations that are costing lives -- costing America’s reputation in the world.”

The Bush campaign disputed Kerry’s figures, saying that 5,000 referred only to the number of Iraqi army soldiers, and did not include the Iraqi national guard, intervention force, air force, special operations and coastal defense forces. Altogether, about 42,000 Iraqi troops have been trained, the campaign said.

But Kerry maintained that Iraq faced widespread instability that threatened the ability to hold elections in January. He said that he read a “devastating” account from a former deputy director of the Coalition Provisional Authority on Wednesday stating that reconstruction aid was not being distributed in the country and that unemployment was rampant.

“I want democracy to take hold,” Kerry said. “But at the moment, I think most people would tell you that the United States and the Iraqis have retreated from whole areas of Iraq. There are no-go zones in Iraq today. You can’t hold an election in a no-go zone.”

The senator reiterated his call for Bush to seek more assistance from the international community to stabilize Iraq, mocking his trip this week to the United Nations as insufficient. “The president skedaddled out of New York so quickly, he barely had time to talk to any leaders,” he said.

Kerry, recovering from a cold and nursing a hoarse voice, skipped two events he had planned to attend in Iowa on Thursday, sending his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, in his stead. He also delayed a speech he was planning to give in Columbus about terrorism until today in Philadelphia.

The Democrat plans to spend the bulk of the next week preparing for the first presidential debate, set for Thursday in Miami. He’s holding his practice sessions at a resort in Wisconsin, where a recent poll by ABC News found Bush pulling ahead of Kerry.