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Bush, Kerry Clash Over Iraq - 2004-09-16

President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry are both on the campaign trail Thursday clashing over U.S. policy in Iraq and looking for votes from America's military veterans.

Senator Kerry told a meeting of the National Guard that President Bush misled the nation into the war in Iraq and is continuing to mislead American voters about the success of the mission there.

The Democratic candidate spoke to the same convention of guardsmen in the city of Las Vegas that President Bush addressed Tuesday. Senator Kerry told the volunteer soldiers that true leadership is about looking people in the eye and telling them the truth, even when that is hard.

"The commander-in-chief has to level with the troops and the nation. And as president, I intend to do that on the good days and on the bad days," he said. "Two days ago, the president stood right here where I am standing. And he didn't acknowledge that more than 1,000 men and women have lost their lives in Iraq. He didn't tell you that with each passing day, we are seeing more chaos, more violence, indiscriminate killings. He didn't tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are actually getting bolder."

Senator Kerry says the president has kept up his optimistic view of Iraq despite a U.S. intelligence report warning of a possible civil war by the end of next year. Even that newly leaked report's best-case scenario describes a nation with tenuous political and economic stability.

When it comes to Iraq, Senator Kerry says it is not that he would have done just one thing differently. He says he would have done almost everything differently.

"The hard truth is, and this is a hard truth, that our president has made serious mistakes in taking us to war in Iraq. He was wrong to rush to war without giving the inspectors the time to do their job and bring allies to our side. He was wrong to rush to war without understanding and planning for the post war in Iraq without even securing nuclear facilities or ammo dumps, some of which weapons are being turned on our own troops," he said.

President Bush campaigned in the important swing state of Minnesota, again criticizing the Democratic challenger for originally supporting the war, then last year voting against $87 billion to fund U.S. troops.

"When you are out gathering the vote, remind your fellow citizens that only four United States Senators voted to authorize the use of force and then voted against funding our troops. Only four. Two of whom are my opponent and his running mate. They asked him, 'Why did you do that vote?' He said, 'Well, I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it. I don't know here on the town square of St. Cloud whether many people talk that way. I doubt it," he said.

The president says Senator Kerry has repeatedly changed his position on Iraq, an indecisiveness that he says would put the nation at risk in a dangerous world. Regardless of the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction, which was the president' biggest justification for the invasion, Mr. Bush says he did the right thing.

"Knowing what I know today, even though we haven't found the stockpiles of weapons we thought were there, I would still have made the same decision. America and the world are safer with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell," he said.

Most public opinion polls still show a tight race between the two men with less than 50 days to go before Election Day. President Bush holds a slight lead when it comes to Iraq. Senator Kerry leads on issues of improving the economy.