by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- In his sharpest attack on U.S. policy on Iraq to date, Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry Monday accused President George W. Bush of having made "a series of catastrophic decisions" that has created a "crisis of historic proportions" both in Iraq and in the wider "war on terror."
Speaking at New York University, just blocks from "Ground Zero" of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, Kerry said Bush should immediately implement a four-part plan to redress the mistakes lest the the current situation, which he characterised as a "mess," become irreversible, no matter who is elected president.
The plan -- which calls for persuading the UN and U.S. allies to assume more responsiblity in Iraq, accelerating and internationalising training of Iraqi forces, redesigning the reconstruction process to reduce unemployment and enhance Iraqi participation, and recruiting a protection force for UN election officials -- should permit Washington to begin withdrawing troops as early as next summer and complete their withdrawal within the next four years, he said.
"This is what I would do as president today," he said. "But we cannot afford to wait until January. President Bush owes it to the American people to tell the truth and put Iraq on the right track. Even more, he owes it to our troops and their families, whose sacrifice is a testament to the best of America."
Kerry's remarks, which were clearly designed to sharpen his position on Iraq and put Bush on the defensive, came at the start of a week which the White House had planned to use to highlight his international leadership, particularly on Iraq.
On Tuesday, Bush is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly. His speech will be designed to rally international support for the U.S.-led "war on terror" and to frame the current conflict in Iraq as a central part of that war.
On Thursday, Bush will greet interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at the White House in a joint appearance at which Allawi is expected to express gratitude for Bush's decision to invade Iraq and oust former President Saddam Hussein, and urge strong U.S. support for elections that are still scheduled for January, despite a growing tide of opinion, even among U.S. officials, that the country will not be ready.
In a potentially important reversal for Bush, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose organization is supposed to play a key role in organising and carrying out the polling, said late last week that he did not see how the elections could take place unless the security situation improves substantially. He also said for the first time that he thought the original invasion of Iraq was "illegal" under the UN Charter, an observation that provoked widespread contempt and anger among Republicans and sympathetic media over the weekend.
Kerry's assault on Bush's Iraq policy also came amid indications that the presidential race, despite the Democrat's generally lack-lustre performance, has tightened further. Bush, who emerged from the Republican Convention in New York City earlier this month with a substantial lead, is now ahead by a few percentage points, but still within the margin of error, according to most polls.
According to the same polls, Iraq and the broader war against terror are playing a crucial role in the standings of the two candidates. While Kerry leads comfortably on issues such as the economy, jobs, and health care, the two are closer on Iraq, while Bush leads by a substantial margin on the question of who can best conduct the "war on terror" and protect national security more generally.
For that reason, the Bush campaign has gone all out to depict the Iraq war as part of the war on terror, hoping that, if they succeed, whatever negative opinion has built up over the war -- and polls showed beginning four months ago that more citizens believe it was a mistake to go to war than those who believe it was a good idea -- can be neutralised by its broader identification with Bush's leadership in the anti-terror campaign.
The Kerry campaign has appeared ambivalent about Iraq as an issue, primarily because the senator voted in Oct. 2002 to give Bush the authority to wage war under certain conditions. The fact that he became harshly critical of the war beginning earlier this year has been used by the Bush campaign as an opportunity to depict Kerry as an indecisive "flip-flopper," a tactic that has been remarkably successful, according to the latest opinion polls.
Kerry's often-rambling explanations of both his original decision to back the war resolution and his subsequent decision to vote against a huge appropriation to fund the occupation actually fuelled the Republican's efforts to depict him as, in the word of one Washington veteran, a "typical mushhead Senator" in contrast to the strong and decisive leadership of the incumbent.
As a result, the Kerry campaign two weeks ago tentatively decided to soft-pedal Iraq as the dominant issue in the campaign and move his focus to the economy and other domestic issues.
But that decision appears to have been reversed over the past week, particularly in light of the sharp escalation of violence and its toll on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as well as the sudden speculation about whether the next benchmark in the "transition" in Iraq -- the January elections -- can indeed be reached on schedule.
The decision to return the campaign's focus to Iraq was also propelled by the fact that Bush's fellow-Republications were themselves making increasingly outspoken attacks on Iraq policy, particularly in reaction to the increasingly optimistic rhetoric of Bush and his top aides.
"The worst thing we can do is hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion that we're winning," said Nebraska Republican and former Vietnam veteran Sen. Chuck Hagel during a widely noted hearing last week. "Right now we are not winning. Things are getting worse."
In unusually harsh language, the normally bland and ultra-polite Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, joined in, complaining about the "dancing-in-the-street crowd" within the administration, notably the vice president's office and Pentagon political appointees, for unrealistic assumptions about how Iraqis would greet a U.S. occupation.
On Sunday, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who has strongly backed Bush's re-election despite a close friendship with Kerry, also noted that the administration had made "serious mistakes" in Iraq due mostly to its failure to deploy more troops there. Yet another influential Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, assailed Bush for being "stubborn about troops. We do not need to paint a rosy scenario for the American people," he said.
The Republican attacks were also provoked by a series of leaks of classified intelligence documents that depicted a far bleaker outlook in Iraq than what Bush was offering publicly. Both the leaks and the Republican attacks suddenly made Bush appear a great deal more vulnerable on Iraq than just seven days before.
In his address Monday, Kerry deliberately echoed many of the Republicans' complaints, even citing Hagel, Lugar and McCain by name.
Bush was "in denial", he said, noting that before, during, and after the war, "he hitched his wagon to the ideologues who surround him, filtering out those who disagreed, including leaders of his own party and the uniformed military". The result, he declared, included "colossal errors of judgement" during and after the war for which no one was held accountable. "In fact the only officials who lost their jobs over Iraq", he said, "were the ones who told the truth".
Despite the fact that the major justifications for the war -- such as Hussein's alleged buildup of weapons of mass destruction and his ties to al Qaeda -- have since turned out to have had little or no factual basis, "President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious?" Kerry asked.
Now, he said, "we have a mess on our hands (in Iraq). But we cannot throw up our hands. We cannot afford to see Iraq become a permanent source of terror that will endanger America's security for years to come," he said, calling for a "fresh start".
First, Kerry called for Bush to convene a summit meeting of the world's major powers and Iraq's neighbours during the General Assembly this week to offer to fully include them in the reconstruction process in exchange for peacekeeping troops, training of Iraqi security personnel, and securing Iraq's borders.
Second, he called for the administration to "get serious about training Iraqi security forces", in part by recruiting thousands of trainers from U.S. allies and encouraging them to also open training centres in their own countries.
Third, Kerry called for a reconstruction plan designed to bring "tangible benefits to the Iraqi people" by using "more Iraqi contractors and workers, instead of big corporations like Halliburton". In addition, "he should fire the civilians in the Pentagon responsible for mismanaging the reconstruction effort".
Finally, Bush should take "immediate, urgent, essential steps to guarantee the promised elections can be held next year", according to Kerry, who noted that a resolution authorising a protection force for UN electoral monitors was approved by the Security Council in the spring. "Three months later, not a single country has answered that call, and the president acts as if it doesn't matter."
While it "will not be easy" to recruit such a mission now, Kerry noted, "even countries that refused to put boots on the ground in Iraq should still help protect the UN"
"George Bush has no strategy for Iraq," he said. "I do."
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