Kerry steps up attack on 'reckless mistakes'

Senator John Kerry made his most aggressive and comprehensive attack yet against George Bush and his pursuit of the war in Iraq - accusing him of "outright incompetence" and "reckless mistakes" - one day before the President was due to deliver a major foreign policy address at the United Nations.

Senator John Kerry made his most aggressive and comprehensive attack yet against George Bush and his pursuit of the war in Iraq - accusing him of "outright incompetence" and "reckless mistakes" - one day before the President was due to deliver a major foreign policy address at the United Nations.

Speaking at New York University yesterday, Mr Kerry was trying to recover the initiative and put the President on the defensive on Iraq and foreign policy. They remain issues on which Mr Bush holds a strong edge in the opinion polls.

The Democrat senator charged him with consistently misleading the public about both the rationale for invading Iraq and the consequences of it, failing to win meaningful support from other nations and losing the focus on the more important war against terrorism. "Iraq was a profound diversion from that war and the battle against our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists," Mr Kerry declared. "Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight."

Far more critical for Mr Kerry may be the forthcoming presidential debates. There were signs yesterday that, after weeks of negotiating, the two camps were close to an agreement to hold three debates over two weeks. The first would take place in Florida on 30 September and would mostly be dedicated to foreign policy and Iraq.

Hoping to pre-empt Mr Bush's own address at the UN this morning, Mr Kerry said last night that at "every fork in the road" the President had "taken the wrong turn and had led us in the wrong direction". He urged Mr Bush to convene a summit in New York this week of leaders of America's allies and of countries neighbouring Iraq to insist that they commit troops to help improve security.

He concluded by urging four priorities to help salvage the Iraqi policy: getting more help from allies, accelerating the training of Iraqi forces, focusing on reconstruction projects to benefit ordinary Iraqis and taking steps to guarantee that elections will be held next year as promised. He said that if these could be achieved, US troops would start leaving Iraq next summer and would be gone entirely in four years.

With his speech, Mr Kerry signalled that he intends hammering Mr Bush on Iraq all the way until election day. The tactic carries considerable risks, however. The Bush camp will continue to allege that Mr Kerry is himself confused about Iraq, highlighting the vote he cast in the Senate to authorise the President to wage the war.

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