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Kerry says US safer with Hussein caught

Sees success in Iraq as aiding terror war

DES MOINES -- Presidential candidate John F. Kerry found himself yesterday trying to square his past criticisms of the US-led war in Iraq with his new statements hailing Saddam Hussein's capture and citing it as a boost for the global battle against terrorism.

Kerry said yesterday that the United States was safer with Hussein out of power and in custody, and that Hussein's apprehension will help bring "stability in the Middle East, [which] is critical in the long term to also dealing with the war on terror." For months Kerry has criticized President Bush for making similar links between going to war against Iraq and the administration's goal of bringing stability to the Middle East, reducing anti-American tensions there, and isolating and defeating Islamic fundamentalist terror cells such as Al Qaeda.

"Iraq may not be the war on terror itself, but it is critical to the outcome of the war on terror, and therefore any advance in Iraq is an advance forward in that," Kerry said yesterday. Kerry, along with several other Democratic presidential candidates, has been searching for ways to align himself with the turn of events in Iraq since learning Sunday morning of Hussein's capture, while also denying Bush an all-out political victory.

Kerry is also seeking to box in his chief Democratic rival, Howard Dean -- who has long opposed the Iraq war and said yesterday that Hussein's capture did not improve US national security. Kerry is to deliver a speech here today saying that Dean lacks the "judgment" and "credibility" to be president because of Dean's skepticism about the importance of Hussein's ouster, according to an advance text.

Yet attacking both Bush's wartime record and Dean's antiwar stands is a challenge for Kerry, who has been dogged for months about which side he takes on the war. He voted in the Senate last year to authorize military action against Iraq, yet since then, his criticism of Bush's war plans and stewardship has become a mainstay of his presidential campaign.

For months, Kerry has regularly told voters that Iraq did not pose a terrorist threat to America. He has also hypothesized that had he had been president, he would have used diplomacy to build a "true international coalition to hold Saddam Hussein accountable" for allegedly violating a United Nations ban on weapons of mass destruction. Kerry has also said he would have gone to war only as "a last resort," and that he would have never waged war in the same way as Bush.

Yesterday, however, Kerry would not say whether he would have allowed Hussein to stay in power if Iraq agreed to fully disarm under pressure from international diplomacy. "I'm not going to go into hypotheticals of what I would do because you can't until you know exactly what your team on the ground is finding and what the realities are," Kerry said.

"I believe the United States would have been stronger, I think we could have saved lives, I think we could have saved money, had we had been patient and built the kind of coalition necessary."

Kerry, on a campaign swing through Iowa before the state's Jan. 19 nominating caucuses, also said Sunday night that when he voted last year to allow a military strike against Iraq, he did not believe Bush would go to war. Kerry said he thought Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, would dissuade him from ever taking such action.

"I think Cheney and company just drove him into it," Kerry said of the war, referring to the vice president and other administration officials.

In today's speech, Kerry will call for working with Iraqi leaders to hold a "fair and credible" trial of Hussein, and not "some kind of kangaroo court without due process of law." Kerry also plans to emphasize improving ties with US allies, such as with France and Germany, that the war has frayed.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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