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Iraq a 'diversion' from fighting Al Qaeda, Kerry says

Bush hits rival for questions on Allawi speech

PHILADELPHIA -- The invasion of Iraq "was a profound diversion" from the war against America's true terrorist threat, Al Qaeda, and President Bush's actions before, during, and since the attack have made America more vulnerable to terrorism, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry charged yesterday.

"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority," Kerry told a student audience at Temple University. "As president, I pledge to you, America, I will finish the job in Iraq and I will refocus our energies on the real war on terror."

Speaking in the Midwest, Bush chastised Kerry for questioning Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq, who told Congress on Thursday that democracy was taking root in his country. Kerry had noted that Allawi had said earlier that terrorists were "pouring" into Iraq. The Massachusetts senator said Bush and Allawi were working to "put their best face" on the situation amid insurgent violence, kidnappings, and beheadings.

"My opponent chose to criticize the prime minister of Iraq," Bush said, drawing boos from the crowd in Janesville, Wis. "This brave man came to our country to talk about how he's risking his life for a free Iraq, which helps America, and Senator Kerry held a press conference and questioned Prime Minister Allawi's credibility."

The president, appearing angry, continued: "You can't lead this country if your ally in Iraq feels like you questioned his credibility. His message ought to be to the Iraqi people, 'We support you.' "

Kerry, as he had earlier in the week in another major foreign policy address focused on the prosecution of the Iraq war, announced no new policy yesterday but pledged better judgment than Bush in conducting foreign affairs. He spoke of his seven-point plan for fighting terrorism, including previously disclosed proposals for expanding the Army by 40,000 soldiers and doubling the number of special forces, as well as funding programs to buy or secure loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.

"When I am president, denying our most dangerous enemies the world's most dangerous weapons will become the central priority for America," Kerry declared.

The senator also accused Bush of a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in Iraq.

"They are not just out to kill us for the sake of killing us," Kerry proclaimed. "They want to provoke a conflict that will radicalize the people of the Muslim world, turning them against the United States and the West. And they hope to transform that anger into a force that will topple the region's governments and pave the way for a new empire, an oppressive, fundamentalist superstate stretching across a vast area from Europe to Africa, from the Middle East to Central Asia. That's their goal."

He added: "The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy: Al Qaeda, which killed more than 3,000 people on 9/11 and which still plots our destruction today."

Kerry's criticism of Bush was buttressed by the widows of two men killed when the World Trade Center collapsed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Lori Van Auken, with friend Mindy Kleinberg by her side, told the hushed crowd in Temple's cavernous basketball arena: "Like most Americans, I rallied behind President Bush after 9/11. I genuinely hoped and believed that he was going to track down the people responsible for my husband's death, to ensure that the tragic events of that day never happened again. Unfortunately, President Bush has failed me. He failed us all."

Van Auken, who like Kleinberg has endorsed Kerry, complained about Bush's initial opposition to creating an independent panel to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks, and, once it was created, his opposition to having victims testify or to testifying himself. The president eventually agreed, but limited his testimony to one closed-door session with Vice President Dick Cheney by his side.

"His decision to wage war in Iraq has diverted valuable resources from capturing the people who killed our husbands," Van Auken said as Kleinberg nodded. "President Bush still stubbornly refuses to recognize that there is no connection between 9/11 and Iraq. And, worse, the war in Iraq has fostered anti-American sentiment that has aided in the recruitment of terrorists. Let me be clear: America is not a safer place three years after 9/11."

After his speech at Temple, Kerry traveled across town for a rally at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Just because George Bush says that the terror's going to continue no matter what we do, just because George Bush says he can't get Europeans to be more involved, just because George Bush tells you that he's tried and it can't work doesn't mean it can't be done," Kerry told supporters. "He alienated them not because they disagree with his style; they disagree with his judgment. And we need a new president with a fresh start, with better credibility, and I will restore America's reputation in the world and lead us to a better place."

Meanwhile, there was disagreement within the administration over how much of Iraq would participate in elections scheduled for January.

On Thursday, Bush and Allawi said the elections would be held as planned, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said afterwards in testimony before Congress, "Let's pretend, hypothetically, that you get to election time in January, and let's pretend that it's roughly like what it is, or a little worse. . . . And let's say you try to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places you couldn't because the violence was too great. So be it, nothing is perfect in life."

Rumsfeld's comment was challenged by the State Department, with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage telling Congress yesterday that elections would proceed as planned.

"I think we're going to have an election that is free and open, and that has to be open to all citizens," he told a House committee. "We've got to do our best efforts to get in troubled areas. . . . I think we're going to have these elections in all parts of the country."

Kornblut reported from Janesville, Wis.; Johnson reported from Philadelphia. Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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