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Kerry says Bush fails in handling Iraq war

LITTLE ROCK -- John F. Kerry, in his fullest criticism yet of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, said the administration has failed and does not deserve a second term.

''I mean this is not a success. Why should we reward more of the same?" he told Associated Press Radio yesterday.

Kerry also said in an earlier radio interview yesterday that the United States should delay courts-martial of low-level military service members until blame is assessed for Pentagon chiefs.

''I think it leaves a terrible taste throughout the military," Kerry said of courts-martial being planned to deal with the abuse crisis. ''I think that it's inadequate. . . . I think it's, sort of, a panicked move to try to display to the Arab world and others that we're going to, you know, do things immediately."

Kerry repeated his call for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign over Iraq war planning, saying it was riddled with ''miscalculations and incompetence."

He also offered some rare hints about Cabinet appointments, saying he had ''any number of people" he would appoint to lead the Pentagon, naming as examples Republican senators John McCain and John Warner, Democratic senator Carl Levin, and Clinton defense secretary William Perry.

Soon after Kerry made those remarks to radio broadcaster Don Imus, a supporter and friend of the presumed Democratic nominee, Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot assailed Kerry in unusually personal language, at one point saying Kerry's character is ''defective." The objection reflected the heated politics surrounding allegations that US military personnel have brutalized and humiliated Iraqi prisoners.

Racicot said Kerry's criticisms smacked of ''raw political opportunism" and argued that, on Iraq and some other issues, Kerry has breached boundaries of political argument that most Americans accept.

Pressed for examples by reporters on a conference call, Racicot cited two: Kerry's remark this week that the abuse scandal stemmed in part from the ''overall arrogance" in running Iraq on Bush administration terms and a recent Kerry fund-raising letter that decried the abuse scandal and repeated the call for Rumsfeld's resignation.

''There is a temperament, there is a nature, there is an essence to his character and his capacity as a leader that is defective and is prone toward political opportunism, because more than anything there's this almost insatiable desire to achieve a higher office," Racicot said of Kerry.

Racicot insisted that the Bush campaign has not crossed those lines of propriety, though he struggled to explain what those lines should be. The Bush and Kerry camps regularly make incendiary statements about the other's record. Kerry aides often complain that some of the senator's votes on taxes and defense spending are often twisted by Republicans to make him appear liberal or wimpy.

The Kerry campaign, which has at times been slow to respond to the Bush camp's four or five daily lines of attack, hit back quickly by saying that Racicot's rhetoric was a threat to American values. ''His latest attacks are not only hyperbolic, baseless, and false, they're dangerous to our democracy," Kerry spokesman David Wade wrote in an e-mail to reporters.

Kerry's appearance on the Imus show, where he has given many of his most expansive interviews of the presidential campaign so far, focused mostly on Iraq, in a week when Kerry has focused squarely on health care as a message for local newspapers and television.

Kerry said the United States should take a stand against the torture of prisoners -- though some Republicans dispute use of the word torture in the context of the Iraq prisoner controversy -- and cited Israel as a model for repudiating torture as ineffective for extracting information. Kerry also said of Bush officials, ''They dismiss the Geneva Conventions, starting in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, so that the status of prisoners, both legal and moral, becomes ambiguous, at best."

When Imus suggested that ''there are over a billion people, more or less, in this world who want every American on the planet dead," Kerry did not contest the point, saying, ''That's why, frankly, and I don't say this casually, but I really believe that is why we need a new president of the United States."

Kerry asserted that the US occupation of Iraq could suffer ''a command failure," and he drew a gloomy picture of a defense structure dominated by Rumsfeld.

''If America has reached a point where only one person has the ability in our great democracy to manage the Pentagon and to continue or to put in place a better policy even, we're in deeper trouble than you think," Kerry said.

In an interview with a Florida television station, he repeated his sorrow at the beheading of American Nicholas Berg in Iraq.

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

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