Kerry goes on the offensive over Bush's 'catastrophic rush to war'

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The Independent US

John Kerry delivered a blistering attack on George Bush over Iraq yesterday, saying the President had followed a "catastrophic" course with his handling of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath, squandering hundreds of billions of dollars which could far better have been spent at home.

John Kerry delivered a blistering attack on George Bush over Iraq yesterday, saying the President had followed a "catastrophic" course with his handling of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath, squandering hundreds of billions of dollars which could far better have been spent at home.

Speaking at the Cincinnati Museum Centre, where Mr Bush gave a stark warning of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in October 2002, Mr Kerry accused his opponent of "rushing to war without a plan to win the peace".

"Two years after he spoke from this place, we know how wrong his choices were," the Democratic presidential candidate declared, on the day after the US death toll in Iraq topped 1,000. He said the country had paid an "unbearable" price in lives and even the Pentagon admitted that entire regions of Iraq were under insurgent control.

The aggressive speech, directly linking Iraq and domestic issues, signalled a tactical change by Mr Kerry, whose seeming indecision and inconstancy has allowed Mr Bush his campaign to cast him as a "flip-flopper," unfit to be trusted with protecting the country.

On Tuesday, Dick Cheney even warned that the election of Mr Kerry and his running mate Senator John Edwards would lead to new terrorist attacks against the US - a charge that Democrats called dishonourable scaremongering by opponents who would stoop to anything to stay in office.

But the relentless hammering has been undeniably effective, as the Republicans have gained the campaign initiative and a clear lead in the polls after last week's party convention in New York. Yesterday, however the Massachusetts senator came out swinging, in a style that will hearten his supporters.

The President had belatedly admitted to "miscalculations" in the post-war period, Mr Kerry said. "But the real miscalculation was to ignore the advice he was given. And when he didn't like what he was hearing, he even fired his army chief of staff." He was referring to General Eric Shinseki, who was censured and, in effect, forced to retire after he warned before the war that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq - in contrast to the now discredited claim by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, that a far smaller force could do the job.

By challenging Mr Bush separately and head-on over Iraq, Mr Kerry is betting that mounting US losses and continuing chaos on the ground will force the war back to the centre of the campaign, less than eight weeks before the 2 November election. Thus far, the President has sidestepped the issue, presenting Iraq (on the rare occasions when he mentions it) as part of the overall "war on terror", where his performance is highly rated by voters.

Yesterday, Mr Kerry cited the "wrong choices" over Iraq to highlight the deficiencies of the Bush administration's domestic policies. The war, he said, had been a waste of money and the cash should have been spent on education, jobs and health care in the US and making the country more energy independent.

"We've spent $200bn (£110bn) while running up the biggest deficits in history," Mr Kerry declared, referring to the latest federal budget forecasts of a record $422bn for 2004. "$200bn for Iraq but they tell us we can't afford after-school programmes for our children," he declared. "$200bn in Iraq but they tell us we can't afford healthcare for our veterans; $200bn for Iraq but they tell us we can't afford to keep the 100,000 police officers we put on the street."

Mr Kerry promised to close tax loopholes that allowed US companies to take jobs abroad and to make health care available "to all Americans".

His counter-attack came as Mr Bush was again assailed over his avoidance of service in Vietnam, by gaining a post in the Texas Air National Guard.

Critics renewed charges that the Mr Bush used family connections to avoid the draft, and that once in the Guard, he shirked some of his duties.

The Washington Post has meanwhile reported that the Bush campaign is offering to take part in only two presidential debates this autumn, instead of the three scheduled. Most observers expect Mr Kerry to do well in the debates.

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