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Kerry visits Iraq to monitor war firsthand

BAGHDAD -- Senator John F. Kerry, who made criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy a central theme of his presidential campaign, arrived in the war-torn capital yesterday on a solo fact-finding mission to the region.

Kerry visited with soldiers from Massachusetts, US intelligence officials, and Iraqi officials at the start of a two-day swing through the Iraqi capital and other parts of the country. The veteran Massachusetts senator said he wanted to see for himself whether the country was moving toward stability or deeper into chaos, and the best way to learn was to seek information firsthand.

''I've been visiting a lot of places like Des Moines and Green Bay [during the campaign], and it has been great," Kerry said during an informal lunch at the Al-Rashid Hotel with a small group of reporters and officials from nongovernmental organizations. ''But we are at war, and I think you can't really make all the judgments that you need to make without digging in."

He declined to compare the insurgency in Iraq with the one he faced in South Vietnam as a Navy lieutenant three decades ago. He insisted that superior firepower alone wouldn't quell the violence in Iraq.

''No insurgency is defeated by conventional military power alone. Look at the IRA," he said, referring to the Irish Republican Army, which fought a decadeslong guerrilla war against the British in Northern Ireland. ''It was defeated by a combination of time and political negotiation."

He said he was more interested in asking questions of soldiers, American officials and Iraqis themselves than in rehashing the political battles of past campaign.

But in several instances, he attacked what he called the ''horrendous judgments" and ''unbelievable blunders" of the Bush administration. The mistakes, he said, included the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and purge the government of former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Both moves are widely believed to have fueled the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Now, he said, it was time to move forward.

''Mistakes have been made," he said. ''Now it's a different time and different set of judgments that have to be made. I'm here to make judgments about what moves are available to us."

The senator was also scheduled to meet yesterday with US Embassy officials as well as Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, as well as a deputy to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the Shi'ite leader at the top of a slate of candidates favored to receive the most votes in a national election set for Jan. 30.

Yesterday evening, Kerry met with about 20 Army reservists from Massachusetts, at Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport. Some of the soldiers there live in luxury villas once inhabited by Hussein's loyalists.

''They all joked about how living conditions had changed since Senator Kerry was in Vietnam," said David Wade, Kerry's communications director. Kerry asked the Massachusetts soldiers how often they get to call their families and reminisced about writing letters home when he was stationed in Vietnam, Wade said in an e-mail account of the evening.

The senator spent Tuesday night in Amman as a guest of King Abdullah II of Jordan and was scheduled to spend last night there as well. He planned to fly back into Iraq on a C-130 military transport plane today to visit US troops in Fallujah and Mosul.

Kerry, whose tour includes visits to leaders in Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, said success was in Iraq was important in the broader context of the region's struggle for change. ''You have another election in the West Bank, a set of challenges to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the region that are quite daunting," he said.

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