The United States is fighting a war in Iraq and Americans are divided over whether it's right. The war is a huge issue in the 2004 presidential election.

President George W. Bush, who is seeking re-election, ordered the invasion of Iraq 18 months ago. Since then, more than 1,000 American soldiers have died. More than 15,000 Iraqis also have died; many of them are soldiers, but most of them ordinary citizens and even children.

Attacking Iraq was the hardest decision of his presidency, but it was the right decision, Bush says today.

Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, at first supported the war, but now says going to war was the wrong decision and that the president misled Americans about the reasons for going to war.

Before the war, the president said that the Iraqi government, led by Saddam Hussein, had "weapons of mass destruction" (chemical or biological weapons that could kill thousands of people). But after the invasion, none of these weapons was found. President Bush also said Iraq had strong links to al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The Sept. 11 Commission recently said that Iraq and al Qaeda were not working together.

More recently, President Bush says the war was worth fighting because it will eventually bring democracy to Iraq and because it freed people there from a dictator, someone who rules by force.

After Hussein became president in 1979, millions there were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Poison gas was used to kill Kurdish villagers in Iraq in the 1980s. Iraq attacked nearby Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War with the United States and other countries.

But Iraq today is not a peaceful place. There are more than 140,000 U.S. troops in the country. Just about every day soldiers are attacked by Iraqi insurgents, armed and organized fighters who want the U.S. troops to leave and the temporary Iraqi government to fail.

Whether you think the war was necessary -- as President Bush says -- or not something our country should have started -- as Sen. Kerry says -- the United States is now heavily involved in Iraq. Voters must decide if they want to reelect the president who ordered the war or replace him with a man who now criticizes it.

-- Fern Shen

* Ordered invasion of Iraq, calling it a threat to America's security.

* Says, if he had it to do over, he would still go to war even knowing Iraq apparently had no weapons program and no link to al Qaeda.

* Says Iraq is "a war for the civilized world to fight terrorists and terrorism." Says the war makes America safer.

* Says Iraq is well on the way to being "secure, democratic, federal and free." (Elections are scheduled for January.)

* Would keep troops in Iraq as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy.

* Invasion of Iraq is an example of his policy of preemption, which means attacking an enemy before that enemy can strike the United States.

* Voted to give President Bush authority to invade Iraq, but later opposed Bush's request for $87 billion for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq.

* Says he would not have launched this war knowing what he knows now.

* Says having U.S. troops in Iraq makes the world less safe, because it distracts us from the war on terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and stirs up resentment in the region and worldwide violence by terrorists.

* Says Bush should have gotten strong support from many other countries before the war.

* Calls the situation in Iraq "more and more of a mess."

* Would begin to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq in the summer and bring all of them home within four years.

THE BACK-AND-FORTH

* Bush says Kerry's shifting position on Iraq shows he's a wishy-washy leader. Kerry did at one point say that, if he had been in the White House 18 months ago, he would have attacked Iraq. That's the opposite of what he says now.

* Kerry says, yes, Iraq was a dictatorship capable of developing nuclear weapons, but that description "would apply to 35 to 40 countries today. Is President Bush saying we should invade all of them?"

BUSH AND KERRY ON . . . IRAQ