Thursday, September 16, 2004

DETROIT — John Kerry yesterday said he now can see no reason why the United States went to war in Iraq, yet added that he still stands by his vote to authorize the war.

“Not under the current circumstances, no, there are none that I see,” the Democratic presidential nominee said when asked about the justification for the war by radio talk-show host Don Imus. “I voted based on weapons of mass destruction. The president distorted that, and I’ve said that.”

Mr. Kerry then said, however, that it was right to threaten Saddam Hussein in order to force him to comply with U.N. weapons-inspection demands and that the senator was “prepared to use the force.”

“I think it was the right vote based on what Saddam Hussein had done, and I think it was the right thing to do to hold him accountable,” he told Mr. Imus, saying his position “can’t be clearer.”

But Mr. Kerry’s answers left Mr. Imus, who frequently describes himself on air as a Kerry supporter, flummoxed.

“I asked him a number of questions about Iraq, and I can’t tell you what he said,” Mr. Imus said after Mr. Kerry hung up.

Republicans seized on that statement.

“The bottom line: Anyone who listened to Imus, anyone who reviews the transcript, now recognizes that on the most important issue facing our country today — the question of how we deal with global terrorism — John Kerry’s position has deteriorated into complete and total incoherence,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman told reporters on a conference call yesterday.

Mr. Kerry was one of 77 senators who voted on Oct. 11, 2002, for the resolution titled “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002,” which, in addition to weapons of mass destruction, cited Iraq’s breach of the 1991 cease-fire and U.N. resolutions as justification for force.

But since then, Mr. Kerry has tried to walk a fine line of not repudiating his vote, while still trying to find room to criticize Mr. Bush. He has said Mr. Bush took the nation to war the wrong way, failing to build the right international coalition and failing to prepare for the aftermath of a speedy victory.

Mr. Kerry has recently taken to calling Iraq the “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

Mr. Kerry has voted in the past to make regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States, and his campaign still contends that they think Saddam had to be dealt with.

And just last month, Mr. Kerry said even knowing now that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, it was still right to vote to authorize an invasion.

At one point yesterday, after Mr. Kerry had criticized the Bush administration for failing to plan for the postwar period and not equipping troops properly, Mr. Imus said the senator might be to blame, citing his vote against an $87 billion bill to fund the war in Iraq.

“They can’t get this equipment for these troops if people like you won’t vote for the funding though,” Mr. Imus said.

“We did vote for the funding. We voted for the funding,” Mr. Kerry responded. “I voted for the largest defense budgets in the history of our country. And I voted — this is long after the war, that $87 billion vote. The war had started. These people were sent over there without the equipment, and they still don’t have the equipment.”

In yesterday’s interview, Mr. Kerry said he has not read the book “Unfit for Command,” the best seller written by fellow Vietnam veterans who served similar duty as Mr. Kerry on swift boats and who dispute his service record.

But despite not having read it, Mr. Kerry called it “an absolute pack of lies.”

“It’s been proven to be a pack of lies, and I have no interest in reading it,” he said.

Author John E. O’Neill said there is “a simple reason” why the book remains the New York Times’ best-selling nonfiction book for the fourth week in a row.

“It’s all true,” Mr. O’Neill said yesterday. “Neither John Kerry nor any of his campaign surrogates have come forward to refute a single word of my book.”

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