President Bush said Friday that the United States was making progress in stabilizing Iraq a year after he stood before a “Mission Accomplished” banner to declare an end to major combat operations. His Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, insisted that the goal had not been met and that it was time “to put pride aside and build a stable Iraq.”
Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Bush’s speech aboard an aircraft carrier, and since his pronouncement, nearly 600 U.S. servicemen and women have died. The last day of April also concluded the war’s deadliest month, with more than 120 lives claimed by hostile fire.
The Bush campaign has touted the president’s leadership in a time of war and terrorism as his strength in the re-election bid, but the increasing violence and death toll in Iraq have pushed a growing number of Americans to wonder whether Iraq was worth the fight, according to recent polls. The situation in Iraq also prompted questions for Bush during an appearance at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Bush told reporters “we’re making progress, you bet,” while noting that he warned last year that “there was still difficult work ahead.”
“A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier saying we had achieved an important objective, accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein,” Bush said. “As a result, there are no longer torture chambers or mass graves or rape rooms in Iraq.”
Kerry: ‘Days of great danger’
Kerry, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., said the anniversary marked “a moment of truth in Iraq.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room today or 6,000 miles away who doesn’t wish that those words had been true,” Kerry said, referring to “Mission Accomplished.” “But we’ve seen the news. We’ve seen the pictures. And we know that we are living through days of great danger.”
Kerry has chastised the president for failing to get more international assistance. He has said other nations have an interest in a peaceful Iraq, so the United States should reach out to them to share the cost.
Kerry called for NATO to make Iraq part of its global mission as a security organization, for the U.N. Security Council to authorize a high commissioner for governance and reconstruction, and for a massive effort to build an Iraqi security force.
“This moment in Iraq is a moment of truth,” Kerry said. “Not just for this administration, the country, the Iraqi people, but for the world. This may be our last chance to get this right.
“We need to put pride aside to build a stable Iraq. We must reclaim our country’s standing in the world by doing what has kept America safe and made it more secure before — leading in a way that brings others to us so that we are respected, not simply feared, around the globe.”
Kerry said U.S. soldiers are dying without the right equipment or the support of the world. At least 738 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq.
“This anniversary is not a time to shout,” Kerry said. “It’s not a time for blame. It is a time for a new direction in Iraq. It is a time for America to work together so that once again this nation leads in a way that brings the world to us and with us in our efforts.”
Kerry’s speech came four days after Vice President Dick Cheney denounced his leadership in the same gymnasium. “The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security,” Cheney said during his visit Monday.
Cheney repeated many of the criticisms he had leveled at Kerry in a fund-raising appearance, prompting Westminster President Fletcher Lamkin to complain of “Kerry-bashing.” Kerry accepted Lamkin’s invitation to offer a rebuttal at the campus, the site of British statesman Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” address in 1946.
The friendly crowd interrupted Kerry’s 30-minute speech at least 22 times with applause, rising to its feet at least seven times for a standing ovation. Most of the tickets for the address were given to Democratic activists and Kerry supporters.
Meanwhile, Kerry’s campaign said he raised $200,000 on Thursday at each of two fund-raisers in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa. The campaign said he has raised more than $80 million this year, reaching his goal three months ahead of schedule.
The campaign set a goal of $20 million more before the Democratic National Convention begins in late July. Kerry still lags far behind Bush, who has raised more than $185 million since launching his re-election effort last May.
"I don't think there's anyone in this room today or 6,000 miles away who doesn't wish that those words had been true," Kerry said. "But we've seen the news. We've seen the pictures. And we know we are living through days of great danger."