- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The Bush administration has failed U.S. troops in Iraq while neglecting soldiers who served in past wars, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry told veterans yesterday.

The Massachusetts Democrat said that if elected, he would get more allies involved in Iraq, improve pay for U.S. soldiers and ensure veterans the benefits they were long ago promised.

“If I am commander in chief, I won’t just bring to that profound responsibility the perspective of sitting in the Situation Room. I’ll also bring the perspective of someone who’s fought on the front lines,” Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, told the 104th meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“And I will ensure that America always is the best-equipped, best-trained and most powerful fighting force in the world,” he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld assured VFW members that U.S. commanders will have enough troops to combat guerrilla attacks in Iraq.

Both Mr. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice defended President Bush’s Iraq policy.

Mr. Rumsfeld said Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, hasn’t indicated more American troops are needed. “If [Gen. Abizaid] believes additional troops are needed, he will have additional troops. Let there be no doubt about it,” the Pentagon chief told the veterans.

About 150,000 American soldiers are in Iraq, with another 20,000 from Britain and other coalition countries. Roughly 50,000 Iraqis are working with the United States on security matters.

The guerrillas attacking U.S. troops in Iraq are “dead-enders,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding that anti-American fighters coming to Iraq from other Middle East nations will become targets for American forces.

Miss Rice said resistance to the U.S. presence was not surprising, because a democratic Iraq could influence other nations in the region. “The terrorists know a free Iraq can change the face of the Middle East,” she said.

In his address to the VFW, Mr. Kerry suggested the Bush administration has not heeded the lessons of Vietnam in its Iraq planning.

“Above all, we learned that the interests of the grunts on the ground come before all politics and all ideology. And what we urgently need now to protect our young men and women in uniform — and America’s role in the world — are decisions based on professional military judgments and strategic vision, not politics and pride,” Mr. Kerry said.

“I believe a lack of planning and the lack of candor with the American people have placed our men and women in uniform in increased harm’s way.”

He said the administration has “stubbornly refused” to allow other nations to assume risks in Iraq. Mr. Kerry urged wider involvement of the United Nations.

“With the threats we face, we can never cede our security to others, but even a nation as great as the United States needs some friends in this world,” he said.

On veterans issues, Mr. Kerry criticized the Republican-led House for seeking to cut $1.8 billion from Veterans Administration health care programs he said are already in poor shape. More than 130,000 veterans are waiting for care at VA facilities, he said, and more than 50,000 wait longer than six months for their first doctor’s visit.

“We shouldn’t be neglecting to care for our troops and their families before, during and after the war,” Mr. Kerry said.

He also criticized the Pentagon for opposing legislation that would extend an increase in combat pay for troops in Iraq and other war zones.

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