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Bush, Kerry Spar Over War on Terror - 2004-09-24

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is criticizing the president's handling of the fight against terrorism. President Bush says he has made America safer.

At the forefront of President Bush's push for re-election is portraying Iraq as a central front in the fight against terrorism by linking last year's U.S.-led invasion with his response to the terrorist attacks of 2001.

So Senator Kerry is trying to break that link by criticizing the president's actions in Iraq without challenging the overwhelmingly-popular invasion of Afghanistan or the broader need to fight terrorism.

Speaking at a university in the eastern city of Philadelphia, Senator Kerry said President Bush was right to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taleban. But since then, he says, again and again Mr. Bush has made the wrong choices in the fight against terror.

"Instead of using U.S. forces to capture Osama bin Laden, the President outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who let bin Laden slip away. That was the wrong choice," he said. "Instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan, the President rushed to a new war in Iraq. That was the wrong choice."

Senator Kerry says the invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group. He says the president's misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq has made the fight against terrorism harder to win.

"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority. As president, I will finish the job in Iraq and refocus our energies on the real war on terror," he said.

Campaigning in the Midwest state of Wisconsin, President Bush dismissed his opponent's criticism, saying that America and the world are safer with Saddam Hussein removed from power. When the then-Iraqi leader failed to comply with U.N. weapons inspections, President Bush said he could not trust the word of someone he describes as a madman.

"Now, Saddam Hussein, as he had done for over a decade ignored the demands of the free world," he said. "That's just the way it was. He was hoping we would look the other way again. He had no intention of disclosing or disarming because he didn't believe the free world would impose serious consequences."

President Bush attacked Senator Kerry for criticizing Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who the Democrat says joined Mr. Bush in an overly optimistic view of the challenges ahead in Iraq.

"Senator Kerry held a press conference and questioned Prime Minister Allawi's credibility," he said. "You can't lead this country if your ally in Iraq feels like you question his credibility. The message ought to be to the Iraqi people: we support you."

With most public opinion polls showing the president with a slight lead over Senator Kerry, both men are focusing more attention on Iraq, which appears to be shaping up as the central issue in this campaign. Most polls show voters trust the president more when it comes to fighting terrorism and Senator Kerry more when it comes to handling the economy.