Kerry Assails Bush on Iraq
Senator Says War Is 'Mismanaged'
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page A01
ORLANDO, May 12 -- Sen. John F. Kerry, breaking momentarily from his cautious approach to turmoil in Iraq, blasted President Bush on Wednesday for running an "extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted war" and strongly suggested Bush is partly to blame for abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
"They dismiss the Geneva Conventions, starting in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, so that the status of prisoners both legal and moral becomes ambiguous at best," the senator from Massachusetts told radio host Don Imus.
In his most expansive comments on U.S. mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, the presumptive Democratic nominee said this amounts to "major failures in command."
Asked if Kerry is assessing partial blame to Bush in the prison scandal, Rand Beers, a Kerry foreign policy adviser, said in an interview, "Undoubtedly, that kind of ambiguity, yes, is a failure of leadership."
Kerry proposed two immediate changes: Oust Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and delay court-martial hearings for Americans charged with mistreating the prisoners.
"I think it's sort of a panicked move to try to display to the Arab world and others that we are going to, you know, do things immediately," Kerry said of impending hearings. "But I think you have to think of morale of the military and the chain of command."
Kerry said dismissing Rumsfeld during wartime would not hinder efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he offered up a few candidates to replace the defense secretary: GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and John W. Warner (Va.) and Democratic Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), a staunch war critic.
"If America has reached a point where only one person has the ability in our great democracy to manage the Pentagon and to continue or to put in place a better policy even, we're in deeper trouble than you think," Kerry said. "I don't accept that. I just don't accept that. I think that's an excuse. The fact is that we need a change in policy."
Kerry's latest comments come as the Democratic candidate wrestles with how aggressively to criticize the president at a sensitive moment when much of the world is watching the U.S. reaction to the prison scandal. Since pictures of the abused prisoners were plastered on television screens worldwide, Kerry has carefully avoided talking about the issue, for the most part. The candidate has held only one news conference in the past 31/2 weeks, in part to limit questions about Iraq. On Tuesday, he brushed aside several questions about the prisoners.
After learning that an American in Iraq was decapitated by men claiming al Qaeda affiliation, Kerry avoided any mention of Bush in his statements about the killing and struck a bipartisan, patriotic tone.
"I think it will harden the resolve of a lot of Americans to make certain terrorists won't get away with it, even as we move to address obvious problems that have existed in Iraq," he told reporters late Tuesday.
Some Democrats worry that Kerry is not saying enough about Iraq, which allows Bush and his allies to set the agenda and the tone of the debate. In Washington, Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said the senator would continue to speak out on Iraq but would not be pressured into doing so, given how rapidly the story is unfolding.
"We're watching this, we're trying to find out as much about this as possible," she said, "but we're not going to rush into commenting on a national crisis."
The Bush campaign has repeatedly accused the senator of "politicizing" Iraq. Bush-Cheney chairman Marc Racicot told reporters Wednesday that Kerry is relentlessly "playing politics" and exploiting tragedy for political gain.
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