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Thursday, July 10

Kerry says Bush bungled Iraq war

By Jon Frandsen | GNS

WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry accused President Bush Thursday of bungling the occupation of Iraq and demanded he seek international help in bringing order to the country.

"It is time for the president to step forward and tell the truth: the war is continuing and so are the casualties,'' the senator from Massachussetts said, noting that Bush declared from the deck of an aircraft carrier more than two months ago that hostilities had largely ended.

Kerry warned that America was now perceived as "an occupying power'' and that Iraqi resistance could grow if a broader coalition does not become involved.

Kerry, a decorated war hero who became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, said at a news conference he feared some fateful mistakes of nearly 40 years ago were being repeated.

"I learned a long time ago in Vietnam what happens when pride gets in the way of making honest decisions,'' he said. "We carried that war on for too many years because of pride. And I refuse to see us now put American soldiers at risk because we're unwilling'' to seek international help.

Kerry's attack was one of the harshest on the president since Bush made the May 1 speech, but it follows a chorus of growing criticism that has been building in recent weeks because of continued hostilities and unrest.

Also Thursday, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York criticized Bush and urged the administration to quickly change course before U.S. troops get bogged down in a guerrilla war similar to Vietnam.

Attacks on U.S. troops have claimed 31 lives since that declaration. There also have been repeated public protests by Iraqis about the slow pace of involving Iraqis in administering the country and growing anger over the lack of basic services like electricity.

While the loudest complaints have come from Democrats, there are clear signs of broader concern both in Congress and by the public.

The Senate voted 97-0 Thursday on a nonbinding resolution that mirrored - in gentler, nonconfrontational language - Kerry's call to seek more international help on the ground.

It encourages Bush to ask NATO to set up peacekeeping forces similar to those in the Balkans, and for the United Nations to ask other countries to take part in peacekeeping and policing activities.

Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Joe Biden, D-Del., sponsors of the resolution, have been increasingly concerned about the slow pace of reconstruction. Like Kerry, they have been warning the administration since before the war that it was not being aggressive enough about planning for the occupation.

Bush also has been buffeted by mostly Democratic criticism over the use of questionable intelligence to build a case for war. The White House acknowledged Sunday that Bush's charge in his State of the Union address in January that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear materiel from Niger was based on phony documents. Kerry joined a number of Democrats in calling for aggressive public hearings.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this week said there are growing concerns about the war, but that Democrats had yet to capitalize on those worries.

It found that those saying the military effort in Iraq is going very well fell from 61 percent in mid-April to 23 percent June 19-July 2. Those saying the military effort is not going well rose from 4 percent to 23 percent. It also showed that the nine Democratic presidential candidates have gained little from worries about the war.

The Pew poll of 1,201 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But Kerry, who has been attacked himself by other Democrats for voting late last year to give Bush the power to invade Iraq, said he was making Bush's conduct of the war a focus of his run for the Democratic nomination. "One of the reasons I am running for president of the United States is to hold this president accountable for the lack of planning, the lack of diplomacy, the lack of strategy and the lack of commitment to the multilateral institutions that have helped America be strong,'' he said.

Kerry seemed keenly aware that he may have difficulty squaring his support for use of force with his criticism of Bush and faces accusations of fence-straddling.

Kerry repeatedly pointed out how he had been critical of Bush's approach to the war and its planning long before the invasion. But Kerry said his vote was ``100 percent correct'' and he believed the threat of force was justified and he did not regret casting it.

"What I regret is that this president did such a bad job,'' he said.

(Contributing: GNS reporters Chuck Raasch and John Machacek.)