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Iraq War Continues to Divide US Democratic Presidential Candidates - 2003-10-16

Differences over Iraq continue to drive the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in advance of next year's election.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has ridden his opposition to the war in Iraq to the top of public opinion polls in the early presidential contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In recent weeks, the newest entrant into the Democratic field, retired Army General Wesley Clark, has added his voice to those opposing the president over Iraq. "We were brought into Iraq under false pretenses," he said. "We went to a war that didn't have to be fought and now we are into an occupation there that has cost more lives, at least on our side, than the fighting itself did."

General Clark got a late start on his presidential bid but he has already vaulted to near the top of public opinion polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

All nine Democratic contenders are critical to some extent of the president's policy on Iraq. But deep divisions remain between those Democratic candidates who supported a congressional vote authorizing the president to use force in Iraq and those who opposed it.

Those who voted for the congressional use of force resolution in 2002, like Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, continue to defend their stand in candidate debates and in interviews. "I did the right thing," he said. "My vote was a vote for the security of the United States of America based on the information we were given."

But Senator Kerry has been critical of the intelligence the administration put forward to justify the war on Iraq and he also believes the president should have done more to win international support. "I believe there was a rush, ultimately, to war and that put us in jeopardy and I regret that. I am glad Saddam Hussein is gone," he said. "But this president, because of his rush, did sooner what he could have done later in a position of greater strength."

That stand has caused problems for Senator Kerry with liberal Democratic activists who sharply disagreed with the president over Iraq. Many of them have now flocked to the candidacy of Howard Dean.

Mr. Dean took on Senator Kerry over Iraq during a recent debate in Iowa. "I disagree with John Kerry," he said. "I don't think he has the breadth of foreign affairs. Every one of those five [other top Democrats running for president]) except for me supported the war in Iraq. And if you have the judgment to support the war in Iraq and I don't think that is the right judgment for the White House of the United States."

The other Democratic presidential candidates who voted for the use of force resolution are Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.

The candidates who opposed the war, in addition to former Governor Dean, are Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, former senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

The Democratic debate over Iraq has also caught the attention of Republicans. Some of them complain that the constant stream of criticism coming from the Democratic presidential field could weaken public support for the president's program to rebuild Iraq.

On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Missouri Republican Jim Talent recently said, "This is not the 1960s. Iraq is not Vietnam. Saddam Hussein is not Ho Chi Minh. I just believe strongly that this is an American war. This action in Iraq is part of it. It is a tremendous strategic aspect of this war and we can and will win it if we pull together, if we will get in the same boat and row."

Despite that plea, the Democratic debate over Iraq, if anything, is likely to intensify in the weeks ahead as the nine candidates begin to emphasize their differences with each other over both domestic and foreign policy.