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Campaign 2004: The Candidates on Iraq - 2004-07-26

One of the major issues in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign is each candidate’s position on Iraq. Both the incumbent, President George W. Bush, and his challenger, Senator John Kerry have vowed to keep American forces there until a legitimate, freely elected Iraqi government is in power. As VOA’s Serena Parker reports, what is most surprising about the candidates’ positions on what should be done in Iraq is how similar they are.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic contender who will challenge President Bush in the 2004 election, criticizes the president for his “rush to war” and poor post-war planning in Iraq. However, in October 2002 he joined 76 other U.S. Senators and voted to authorize the president to attack Iraq, if Saddam Hussein refused to give up his weapons of mass destruction as required by U.N. resolutions.

John Kerry still defends his vote authorizing war, but has relentlessly criticized the Bush Administration for the way it went to war. He says if elected president, he would not pull U.S. forces out of the country. Instead he would work to get more allied forces on the ground to ensure the success of the mission and a free, stable Iraq. “This moment is a moment of truth in Iraq, not just for this administration, the country, the Iraqi people, but for the world. This may be our last chance to get it right,” he says.

Senator Kerry blames the Bush Administration for a series of mistakes in Iraq, but his strategy for transforming the country into a secure democracy is quite similar to the president’s. Both highlight the importance of transferring power to the Iraqis, improving security, rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure and services, and moving the country toward elections at the end of 2005.

Mr. Kerry’s plan differs from the president’s in one major way: he has vowed to take a more multilateralist approach to Iraq as opposed to the president’s more unilateralist position. Mr. Kerry believes he will be able to enlist the help of estranged allies like Germany and France that have been reluctant to join President Bush’s coalition of the willing. “To do this right, we have to truly internationalize both politically and militarily, we cannot depend on a U.S.-only presence,” he says.

John Kerry believes authorizing a high commissioner to oversee Iraq’s transition will improve diplomatic relations with traditional U.S. allies in Europe. That position would be filled by a non-American whose main priority would be to focus on the immediate needs of the Iraqis – jobs, infrastructure and services.

James Rubin, a former Assistant Secretary of State under President Clinton and now a foreign policy advisor to John Kerry, explains: “By sharing responsibility in this diplomatic way, that is how you can entice and enlist the support of our NATO allies. He believes that with the right kind of leadership on Iraq and the right kind of leadership across the board our NATO allies can and should be prepared to play a much, much bigger role than they are today in Iraq.”

President Bush is also working to improve the transatlantic relationship. In June he traveled to Istanbul for a NATO summit where the North Atlantic Alliance’s role in Iraq was a major topic. In the end, NATO offered to train Iraq’s new security forces but refused to commit troops to serve in country. But Mr. Bush is certain his administration can gain the international community’s support for Iraqi reconstruction. “Despite past disagreements, most nations have indicated strong support for the success of a free Iraq,” he says. “And I’m confident they will share in the responsibility of assuring that success.”

According to President Bush, success in Iraq hinges on two crucial elements: defeating the insurgents and training Iraq’s security forces. He says American forces will play a key role in this. Therefore, troop levels in Iraq will remain at 138,000 as long as necessary. “General Abizaid and other commanders in Iraq are constantly assessing the level of troops they need to fulfill the mission. If they need more troops, I will send them,” he says.

Mr. Bush says coalition forces will also hand over greater responsibility to Iraq’s military, police and border patrol. An accelerated program to train Iraq’s security forces has been put in place. “Successful fighting units need a sense of cohesion. So we’ve lengthened and intensified their training,” he says. “Successful units need to know they are fighting for the future of their own country, not for any occupying power. So we are ensuring that Iraqi forces serve under an Iraqi chain of command.”

President Bush and Senator Kerry insist failure is not an option in Iraq. If the United States falls short of transforming the country into a stable, secure democracy, Bush and Kerry argue that America’s standing in the world would be irreparably damaged – something neither Democrats nor Republicans want.