updated 9/20/2004 9:03:52 PM ET 2004-09-21T01:03:52

Sen. John Kerry said Monday that mistakes by President Bush in invading Iraq could lead to unending war and that no responsible commander in chief would have waged the war knowing Saddam Hussein didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction and wasn’t an imminent threat to the United States.

“Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious?” Kerry said at New York University.

Bush quickly struck back, accusing his Democratic rival of a “pattern of twisting in the wind” and leaving behind a thicket of contradictory positions on the war.

“Today my opponent continued his pattern of twisting in the wind,” Bush said at a rally in Derry, N.H. “He apparently woke up this morning and has now decided, no, we should not have invaded Iraq, after just last month saying he would have voted for force even knowing everything we know today.”

Kerry, a fourth-term Massachusetts senator, voted to give Bush authority to wage the war and he said in August he still would have voted that way had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The Democratic presidential candidate makes a distinction between granting a president war-making authority as a member of the Senate and, as commander in chief, actually taking that fateful step. Republicans have accused Kerry of waffling on the war.

Video: Exiting Iraq Kerry said Monday, “Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no because a commander in chief’s first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe.”

“Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell,” Kerry said. “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.”

In his speech, Kerry offered four immediate steps that he said the president must take to avoid failure in Iraq.”

  • Get more help from other nations.
  • Provide better training for Iraqi security forces.
  • Provide benefits to the Iraqi people.
  • Ensure that democratic elections can be held next year as promised.

Kerry contended that Bush has not been honest about the war’s rationale or costs. He said the president’s decision to go to war against Iraq has distracted from a greater threat to the United States — more terrorist attacks.

“Iraq was a profound diversion from that war and the battle against our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists,” Kerry said. “Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight.

Kerry’s speech was timed one day ahead of Bush’s scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.But Bush didn't wait until then to respond to Kerry.

Video: Bush responds to Kerry's attack

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“Incredibly, he now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein in power and not in prison,” Bush said. “He’s saying he prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy.

“I couldn’t disagree more, and not so long ago, so did my opponent,” Bush told an audience of supporters. Bush quoted Kerry as saying recently, “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.”

Bush also charged that Kerry had appropriated his administration’s plan for postwar Iraq.

“Forty-three days before the election, my opponent has now settled on a proposal for what to do next, and it’s exactly what we’re currently doing,” the president said.

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry’s goal of pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in his first term sends “a clear signal of defeat and retreat to America’s enemies that will make the world a far more dangerous place.”

With six weeks remaining until Election Day, the Massachusetts senator was pressing the debate on an issue that has given him trouble in his bid for the White House.

The Republicans have accused him of staking out unclear, even contradictory, positions on Iraq. His speech was aimed at explaining his stance and drawing clear differences with Bush’s leadership at a time when troubles in Iraq are mounting.

Kerry tried to turn the criticism back against the president by pointing to varying administration arguments for going to war.

'23 different rationales'
“By one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war,” Kerry said. “If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded.”

Kerry said Bush’s two main rationales — weapons of mass destruction and a connection between al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 attacks — have been proven false by weapons inspectors and the bipartisan commission investigating the attacks.

“This president was in denial,” Kerry said. “He hitched his wagon to the ideologues who surround him, filtering out those who disagreed, including leaders of his own party and the uniformed military. The result is a long litany of misjudgments with terrible consequences.”

Kerry can now point to other Republicans who are also voicing concern about the president’s leadership in Iraq. Among them is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, who said Sunday problems with reconstruction show there is “incompetence in the administration.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would like to see the president be more clear about the dangers in Iraq.

Polls show that most voters think Bush is a better leader on Iraq than Kerry would be. But Democrats say Kerry could turn public opinion by pointing out problems there — plans for a January election are in doubt, troops are stretched thin and more than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed.

But whenever the debate turns to Iraq, Republicans are quick to turn Kerry’s sometimes confusing positions on the war against him. After voting to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, Kerry criticized the president for the way the war was handled and said Bush should have pursued more diplomacy first.

Recently, he’s said he voted for the authorization because of possible weapons of mass destruction. But he’s also said that even if he knew then there were no weapons of mass destruction, he still would have voted for the authorization.

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