One of the major issues in this year?s U.S. presidential campaign is Iraq. President Bush defends his decision to invade Iraq and says the world is safer with Saddam Hussein in prison. His Democratic Party challenger, Senator John Kerry, criticizes the President for the way he took the country to war and his failure to plan properly for the aftermath. As VOA?s Serena Parker reports, Senator Kerry has distinguished his Iraq policy from that of President Bush in some key ways.

It?s no secret President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry disagree strongly over the way the United States went to war in Iraq. In a recent campaign speech, Senator Kerry said the President rushed to war without exhausting all diplomatic options and without a clear strategy for winning the peace. ?It?s the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,? he said.

Senator Kerry went on to say that his policies would have been different had he been president. Allen Keiswetter, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, thinks Mr. Kerry as president would try a more multilateral approach to a crisis such as Iraq.

?Besides a plan for peace and a plan for war, he also has emphasized that there would have to be substantial international support, a true coalition,? he says. ?He did, however, defend the right of the U.S. to go it alone, if need be, to defend our interests.?

The Bush campaign reacted swiftly to John Kerry?s attack, calling him as before a ?flip-flopper,? or someone who abruptly changes his mind. Facing mounting casualties and an uncertain future in Iraq, President Bush continues to defend his decision to go to war. ?No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind, it was right for America then, and it?s right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power,? he said.

President Bush says American forces will remain in Iraq as long as necessary to help the interim government improve security, rebuild Iraq?s infrastructure and services and move the country toward national elections at the end of 2005.

John Kerry recently said that if elected, he will work to bring American troops home before the end of his first term in office. Political analyst Patrick Basham at the Cato Institute, a research organization in Washington, believes John Kerry would settle for an Iraq that doesn?t threaten its neighbors or the United States, but may not achieve full democracy.

?John Kerry has hinted that he?s not so either optimistic or as fixated on the notion that Iraq become this beacon of democracy in the Middle East,? he says. ?I would argue that John Kerry on that issue has perhaps a more realistic view of the prospects for democracy in the short-term in Iraq than does President Bush.?

President Bush believes a free Iraq will encourage change across the Middle East and transform authoritarian regimes into more open, democratic ones, whose citizens will be less prone to extremism. ?See free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies, which no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export,? he said. ?Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them. And that keeps us safer and it makes the world more peaceful.?

Another major difference between the two candidates is John Kerry?s pledge to bring more countries into the coalition. He says American taxpayers and troops are bearing the heaviest burden in Iraq. In early September, U.S. military deaths passed the one thousand mark.

Retired U.S. diplomat Allen Keiswetter says John Kerry might have more success in enlisting estranged allies like France and Germany to help stabilize Iraq. ?I personally believe that Senator Kerry probably has a better chance because he hasn?t burned as many bridges,? he says. ?He?s a new face. He?s committed officially to a more internationalist position. So I think he probably has a much better chance at this.?

But he concedes that given the current situation in Iraq, it may be hard to get other countries to join the effort.

In spite of mounting U.S. casualties in an uncertain Iraq, recent polls suggest a majority of voters still believe President Bush will do a better job of handling the war than John Kerry. But the election is still several weeks away and events ahead in Iraq may well determine the outcome.