NEW YORK -- Senator John F. Kerry yesterday sharply escalated his criticism of President Bush on Iraq, accusing him of ''stubborn incompetence" and warning that if Bush is reelected, ''he will repeat, somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes that have made America less secure than we can or should be."
The Democratic presidential nominee accused Bush of offering ''23 different rationales" for the war, the principal two of which -- the presence of weapons of mass destruction and a possible link between Saddam Hussein's regime and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- have not been proved. Kerry noted the rising number of American casualties and said insurgent attacks have rendered whole sections of Iraq ''no-go zones" for American troops.
Kerry, who in October 2002 voted in favor of a congressional resolution authorizing the war, said Bush rushed into Iraq without the backing of allies, preparing a postwar plan, or properly equipping US forces -- ''None of which I would have done."
''Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell," Kerry told a supportive audience assembled at New York University, downtown from where Bush is to address the United Nations General Assembly today. ''But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."
He blamed Bush for ''colossal failures of judgment."
''This is stubborn incompetence," he said.
Bush moved swiftly to knock back his opponent's attacks. At a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire, the president quoted his opponent's latest remarks to the assembled crowd before doing his best to skewer them.
The president said Kerry ''apparently woke up this morning and has now decided, 'No, we should not have invaded Iraq,' after just last month saying he still would have voted for force even knowing everything we know today."
''Incredibly, he now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein still in power, not in prison," Bush said to an overwhelmingly supportive crowd in Derry. ''I could not disagree more -- and not so long ago, so did my opponent." He continued: ''Last December, he said this, and I quote, 'Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe we are not safer with his capture, don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.' End quote."
Bush skipped a beat, then said, ''I could not have said it better."
The Bush campaign's response to Kerry's attack was unusually swift, with e-mails contending inconsistencies in Kerry's statements, phone calls to reporters covering the Kerry campaign, and a statement from retired General Tommy Franks, who commanded the 2002 invasion of Iraq, criticizing Kerry directly. ''Senator Kerry's contradictions on Iraq are the wrong signal to send to our troops on the ground, to our coalition partners, to the Iraqi people, and to the terrorists seeking our destruction," Franks said.
The heated back and forth between the two candidates yesterday indicated how the rest of the presidential race may end up focusing on Iraq. Polls continue to suggest that Bush is seen as a stronger leader in the war on terrorism, which many voters appear to wrap together with the war in Iraq, while Kerry is stronger on the economy and domestic issues such as health care.
''I don't think Kerry can ignore Iraq and focus solely on the economy," said Gregory Wawro, a political science professor at Columbia University. ''Maybe if they can get their message narrowed down to 'wrong decisions on Iraq, the economy,' . . . that could be the metatheme for the campaign. Then the question is, is that going to resonate with the voters?"
Both candidates spoke as the race entered a pivotal phase, with polls indicating Kerry trailing, the first of their debates scheduled for next week, and Bush strongly positioned this week to win the campaigns' daily battle to dominate headlines. While Kerry campaigns in Ohio and Florida the rest of this week, Bush will surround himself with world leaders, first at the UN, then on Thursday during a meeting at the White House with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq.
Kerry aides said they believe that Iraq still provides the most fertile ground for their argument that Kerry would be a more effective leader than Bush, especially with the headlines filled with reports of heightened violence, hostage-takings, and beheadings. On Sept. 3, Kerry blasted Bush, saying ''misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit for duty." Since then, Kerry has branded Iraq ''the wrong war at the wrong time" and declared ''I would have done everything differently" in the build-up to, execution of, and postwar period of the invasion. Yesterday's NYU speech offered his most sustained and detailed rebuttal to date.
He opened by ticking through statistics about the number of dead and wounded, accounts of raw sewage in the streets of Baghdad and blackouts lasting more than 14 hours daily, and declared, ''That is the truth, the truth that the commander in chief owes to our troops and to the American people."
The Massachusetts senator said the president should do four things immediately: seek international support not only in the form of combat troops, but financial assistance; rapidly accelerate the training of Iraqi police forces; engage in a reconstruction plan that enlists allies and energizes the Iraqi people; and clear the way for UN-supervised elections in January. At the same time, Kerry warned, ''If George W. Bush is reelected, he will cling to the same failed policies in Iraq, and he will repeat, somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes that have made America less secure that we can or should be."
Amid the increase in violence in Iraq, Bush has mostly sidestepped questions about the mounting US casualties and the fierce insurgency. Although even many Republicans doubt Iraq will be stable enough to hold elections in January, Bush frequently cites the scheduled balloting as proof the country is on the brink of transformation.
''They are going to have elections in January," Bush told the Derry crowd. ''Our work in Iraq is hard work. There are people there who want to stop the march to democracy -- that's what they're trying to do. They want us to leave. They want us to quit. Our work in Iraq is absolutely essential."
He continued, without naming Kerry: ''Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to our troops in combat."
But even some prominent Republicans, including Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, have openly questioned the rate of progress on the ground in Iraq.
Just a day earlier, Hagel said on a CBS program that the United States is in ''deep trouble in Iraq" -- a startling assessment from an administration ally and one Bush himself has never come close to making.
The White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, discounted the criticism, saying: ''The senators are raising different aspects of different parts of the issue of Iraq. They will hear firsthand from Prime Minister Allawi -- who will be addressing a joint session of Congress -- about the progress that is being made in his country."
Johnson reported from New York, Kornblut from Derry. Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.