ALBUQUERQUE -- Senator John F. Kerry accused the Bush administration yesterday of secretly planning to call up a substantial number of military reservists and National Guard units after Election Day to go to Iraq, opening a new front in the Democrat's ongoing attack that the president is concealing postwar instability in Iraq from American voters.
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''He won't tell us what congressional leaders are now saying -- that this administration is planning yet another substantial call-up of reservists and Guard units immediately after the election," Kerry told 300 people at a community center here.
''Hide it from people through the election, then make the move -- that's not the way we do business in the United States of America, my friends. We deserve a president who tells the American people the truth, and when it comes to Iraq, George W. Bush simply won't own up to the truth. He hasn't all along. In fact, he'll do anything he can to cover up the truth."
The allegations came after the Kerry campaign this week asked Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a congressional ally and Pentagon specialist, to provide evidence of the reservist plan in order for Kerry to escalate his questioning of Bush's handling of Iraq, aides to Murtha said yesterday. The aides said a relatively small number of new reservists would be involved, probably 2,000 to 2,500, but the idea that such a plan would be kept quiet until after the election spurred Kerry to focus on Bush's honesty as commander in chief.
Kerry's allegations seemed to refer to a possible call-up of 2,000 to 2,500 reservists that military commanders think are needed, according to Murtha.
Murtha released a statement saying he had ''learned through conversations with officials at the Pentagon" that the White House would ''call up large numbers" of reservists if the Bush-Cheney ticket is reelected.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday blasted the suggestion of a new reservist call-up as ''just another baseless attack."
The Bush campaign, separately, released a statement by Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, a member of the defense appropriations panel, who charged that Senate leaders on defense matters have not been told of such a plan and that ''this kind of speculation" was harmful to reservists and their families.
''Desperate candidates are generally not the most accurate sources of information on these issues," Domenici said.
While the Defense Department has announced a new rotation of reservists and National Guard members to Iraq this winter, military commanders have told Murtha that too few reservists have been called up to prepare for the mission and up to 2,500 more will be needed, according to aides to Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the House panel that writes the Pentagon's budget.
A senior aide to Murtha, who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday, cautioned that a new call-up was not a certainty, saying enough reservists may still be mobilized by November to avoid one.
''To quote an old Boston line, it's more than a feeling, but less than a confirmed Pentagon plan," the senior aide said, referring to a song from the rock group.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman also released a statement saying ''no announcements are being withheld for units that have been notified for deployment."
''The Defense Department continues to plan for future operations in Iraq," he said. ''We have made regular announcements of troops rotations throughout this year and will continue to do so."
Murtha, a 30-year House veteran who is respected in Congress and at the Pentagon on defense issues, spoke Wednesday with Rand Beers, Kerry's national security adviser, about the possibility of a new reservist call-up. Kerry has aggressively hit Bush over the fact that reservists and National Guard members make up about 75,560 of about 150,000 US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, referring to their deployment as a ''back-door draft" to support overstretched Army, Marine, and other units.
Kerry also sought yesterday to stir up ongoing voter concern about Iraq yesterday by linking Vice President Dick Cheney's deferred compensation from Halliburton to a series of Pentagon audits that found about $1.8 billion in unaccounted-for Halliburton expenses in Iraq and Kuwait.
Kerry accused the Bush administration of looking the other way as Halliburton allegedly defrauded taxpayers of $186 million for meals never eaten, $61 million for gasoline overcharges, and $100 per bag to clean laundry.
''Now, who's minding the store while all of this has happened? Who's in charge?" Kerry told his Albuquerque audience.
Borrowing a popular line from the NBC show ''The Apprentice," Kerry echoed host Donald Trump in saying: ''As commander in chief, I've got two words for companies like Halliburton that abuse the American taxpayer and the trust: 'You're fired.' "
Kerry cited a 2003 report by the independent Congressional Research Service. It concluded that, under federal ethics laws, deferred compensation like Cheney's from Halliburton, totaling $2 million since he took office, and unexercised stock options qualified as an ongoing financial interest in the company.
The research service was not specifically judging Cheney's relationship to the company, but whether deferred compensation qualified as a financial interest. Cheney took out an insurance policy in 2001 to guarantee that Cheney's deferred compensation would neither increase nor decrease based on the performance of the company. Congressional inquiries have also found no evidence that Cheney arranged for Halliburton's contracts in Iraq.
''I'm outraged that Senator Kerry would take these potshots while Halliburton has lost more than two-dozen employees in Iraq," said Representative Tom Davis, the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who spoke to the Globe at the request of the Bush campaign. ''If John Kerry wanted to do something about these contracts, he could have gone after them when the defense-spending bill came to the Senate floor."
According to a CBS/ New York Times poll published today, 51 percent of voters believe that Bush is ''telling mostly the truth but hiding something" about Iraq, and another 24 percent feel Bush is ''mostly lying." The poll had few pieces of good news for Kerry; Bush held an 8-point lead, and the incumbent drew stronger marks for protecting the United States from terrorism.
In Washington yesterday, Kerry strategists told a conference call of reporters that the in-house analysis of recent polls give a 2-point edge to Bush, and they thought the attacks over Iraq as well as job losses would fuel Kerry gains in future polls.
At the Albuquerque town hall meeting, Kerry was also drawn into a heated exchange over Israel with a local voter, Bob Kirkpatrick, who first praised Kerry's Vietnam service and his criticism of ''atrocities" in that war, and then decried ''atrocities" against the Palestinians and said Congress and US foreign policy were ''subservient" to Israel. Kerry expressed adamant support for Israel.
Globe staff writer Farah Stockman contributed to this report. Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.