Bush and Kerry clash on Iraq

The two had widely differing views on Iraq: Mr Bush said it was a central front in the war on terror; Mr Kerry called it a diversion that had no links with the September 11 attacks.

Iraq sparked several heated exchanges, including a charge by Mr Bush that Mr Kerry “denigrated” US allies there.

The two men began the 90-minute session each claiming they were most capable of keeping the country safe from terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks. But Mr Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, quickly went on the offensive.

Mr Kerry said US security depended on strong alliances, which Mr Bush had left in tatters around the world. Mr Kerry repeated his pledge to hold a summit on Iraq to muster more international troops and relieve the burden on US forces.

Mr Bush said he was confident of poll victory because he had shown the American people he knew how to lead.

“I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?” Mr Bush said.

It has been estimated that millions tuned in for the debate which took place at Florida’s University of Miami, Florida.

Mr Kerry accused President Bush of making a “colossal error of judgment” over Iraq.

He said Mr Bush had waged war with no plan “to win the peace” and had distracted America and its allies from the fight against terror.

“Smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq,” he said.

Mr Bush defended his record, stating: “The world is better off without Saddam Hussein.” He said that Mr Kerry had studied the same intelligence in 2002 and Mr Kerry had voted in favour in the US Senate for the use of force in Iraq.

Mr Bush said he had “a solid duty to defeat the ideology of hate” followed by terrorists and was making progress in Iraq even though “it is hard work to go from tyranny to democracy”.

Mr Kerry said, “I know I can do a better job in Iraq.”

“This president, I don’t know if he really sees what’s happening over there,” Mr Kerry said of Mr Bush, the two men standing behind lecterns three metres apart.

Mr Bush swiftly returned to his campaign theme of Mr Kerry as a man who changes his mind too often to be president.

Mr Bush said Mr Kerry voted in the US Senate “to authorise the use of force and now says it’s the wrong war at the wrong time”.

“The only thing consistent about my opponent’s position is he’s been inconsistent,” said Mr Bush.

More than 1,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003, many of them by insurgents battling American forces.

Not long before Mr Bush and Mr Kerry started their debate, US and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against insurgents in Samarra.

Both men used well-rehearsed lines during their encounter, but this was the first time each man had to listen to the criticism at close quarters.

Mr Bush appeared perturbed when Mr Kerry levelled some of his charges, scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others.

Mr Kerry often took notes when the president spoke.

Before the debate, opinion polls gave Mr Bush a slight advantage, although several key states are regarded as being exceedingly close.

Mr Kerry appeared to taunt the commander-in-chief at one point when he said his father, former President George H Bush, had stopped troops from advancing on Baghdad after they had liberated Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Now, he said, the son ordered an invasion of Iraq anyway, without an exit strategy, and under conditions that meant the United States has incurred 90 per cent of the casualties and paid 90 per cent of the cost.

In response, Mr Bush criticised Mr Kerry by saying he had denigrated US allies in the war by voting against an $US87 billion ($A119.8 billion) measure to aid Afghanistan and Iraq and sending mixed signals.

“What’s his message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion?” Mr Bush said to Mr Kerry’s contention that he could summon broader international support for the war. “They’re not going to follow someone whose core convictions keep changing because of politics.”

Mr Kerry said Mr Bush had misled the country on the war by pledging to plan carefully, give diplomacy every chance to prevail and more. He said Osama bin Laden had used the invasion as a recruiting tool for terrorists.

According to three US media network polls released a few hours after the debate finished, Mr Kerry won the debate.

A Gallup poll for CNN gave Mr Kerry a 46 per cent to 37 per cent win over the president. It added that 46 per cent of those asked now have a better opinion of Mr Kerry against 21 per cent for Mr Bush.

The CBS network, which asked 200 voters, said 44 per cent gave victory to Mr Kerry against 26 per cent who thought the president had the upper hand. Thirty per cent said neither candidate won.

An ABC poll of 531 people gave 45 per cent for Kerry, 36 per cent for Bush and 17 per cent for a draw.

But the survey said Bush still had the support of 51 per cent of voters for the November 2 election against 47 per cent for Kerry.

Mr Kerry and Mr Bush will take part in a second debate in Missouri, on October 8th, in a town-hall-style meeting where they will take questions from the audience.

The final debate is set for October 13th in Arizona, and will focus on domestic issues.

Vice-President Dick Cheney and Mr Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, will hold a single debate in Ohio on 5 October.

Both campaigns plan to extend their debate to the internet.

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