LITITZ, Pa. — President Bush yesterday accused Sen. John Kerry of making “wild charges” about missing explosives in Iraq and mocked the Democrat for belatedly expressing concern over weapons stockpiles.
“The senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign-policy adviser admits, quote, ‘We do not know the facts,’” he said at a rally aimed at enlisting Democratic support, with Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia at his side.
“Think about that: The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts.”
The broadside came two days after Mr. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, began blaming the president for the disappearance of 380 tons of explosives from an ammunition depot south of Baghdad.
The veracity of the story, which was reported Monday by CBS News and the New York Times, has come under fire from soldiers and journalists who were on the scene and say the explosives were missing before U.S. forces arrived on April 10, 2003.
“Our military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios, including that the explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived at the site,” Mr. Bush said.
The president accused his opponent of “denigrating” U.S. forces by implying they were negligent. The charge was denied by senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart.
“To somehow imply that John Kerry does anything less than fully support our troops is beneath contempt,” Mr. Lockhart said. “The American people deserve better, and next Tuesday, they will get it.”
Mr. Kerry, after the president’s remarks, told an audience in Rochester, Minn., that Mr. Bush was doing a disservice to the military.
“You don’t honor our troops or protect them better by putting them in greater danger than they ought to be,” Mr. Kerry said. “The bottom line is, your administration was warned — you were put on notice, but you didn’t put these explosives on a priority list. You didn’t think it was important.”
But Mr. Bush pointed out that while Mr. Kerry has been unequivocally blaming the White House for the disappearance, the Democrat’s top advisers have been hedging their accusations.
For example, Kerry foreign-policy adviser Jamie Rubin acknowledged on CNN that it was possible that the explosives had been removed before U.S. troops arrived a day after the fall of Baghdad. Richard Holbrooke, widely considered Mr. Kerry’s choice for secretary of state, was similarly noncommittal.
“I don’t know what happened,” Mr. Holbrooke told John Gibson of the Fox News Channel on Tuesday. “I don’t know the truth.”
Yesterday, Mr. Bush pounced on this ambivalence.
“A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief,” Mr. Bush said at the rally.
The remark prompted a sarcastic reply from former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark.
“President Bush couldn’t be more right,” the retired general said. “He jumped to conclusions about any connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. He jumped to conclusions about weapons of mass destruction.”
He added: “And because he jumped to conclusions, terrorists and insurgents in Iraq may very well have their hands on powerful explosives to attack our troops.”
But the president pointed out that the explosives still would exist and be in the hands of Saddam, if not for the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom, which Mr. Kerry opposes.
“After repeatedly calling Iraq the ‘wrong war’ and a ‘diversion,’ Senator Kerry this week seemed shocked to learn that Iraq is a dangerous place, full of dangerous weapons,” Mr. Bush said.
“If Senator Kerry had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power,” Mr. Bush said, “He would control all of those weapons and explosives and could share them with his terrorist friends.”
The sentiments were echoed by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said Mr. Kerry “is not one to let a shortage of facts bother him.”
“He rushed out to put up a TV ad, saying there was a failure to secure these explosives when he has no idea if they were even there to be secured,” he said. “John Kerry will say and do anything, except give our troops the backing and the praise they deserve.”
With less than a week remaining in the campaign, Mr. Bush spent yesterday reaching out to centrist and conservative Democrats by invoking their opposition to homosexual “marriage” and abortion on demand.
He stumped across the Midwest with Democrats such as Mr. Miller and George McKelvey, the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio.
“As the citizens of this nation prepare to vote, I want to speak directly to the Democrats,” the president said. “I’m a proud Republican, but I believe my policies appeal to many Democrats.
“In fact, I believe my opponent is running away from some of the great traditions of the Democrat Party,” he added. “If you’re a Democrat and you want America to be strong and confident in our ideals, I’d be honored to have your vote.”
Ticking off a variety of domestic and international issues, Mr. Bush cited the stances of such Democratic presidents as Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Kerry campaign responded by enlisting Mr. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, to issue a statement calling on Mr. Bush to stop invoking her father’s name.
For his part, Mr. Miller repeated a theme of his keynote address to the 2004 Republican National Convention, saying his party had abandoned its long record of fighting America’s enemies and that Mr. Bush had to be re-elected to win the war on terrorism.
“The political pundits and talking heads said I looked mad and I sounded angry. How very perceptive of them, because I wish more of my party’s leaders had the same will to win this war as does President Bush,” Mr. Miller said.
Yesterday was the third day that Mr. Kerry has spent on the Iraq explosives issue, and his advisers think it could be a major factor in the campaign, arguing it crystallizes the reasons to toss out Mr. Bush.
The Kerry campaign charged yesterday that Mr. Bush has had a half-dozen excuses for the explosives’ disappearance, but still hasn’t given an explanation.
“This is a growing scandal, and the American people deserve a full and honest explanation of how it happened and what the president is going to do about it,” Mr. Kerry said while campaigning in Sioux City, Iowa, yesterday morning.
The Kerry team unleashed a full spread of responses to Mr. Bush, including statements from retired Gen. Merrill McPeak and Gen. Clark, a statement by Mr. Lockhart, and a conference call with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In his call, Mr. Biden also said the argument on when the explosives disappeared isn’t even the issue anymore.
“These guys knew where it was, and even if it was gone before, which I doubt it was, ask them a question, … ‘Who did you have there guarding that facility?’ ” he said.
Both the president and vice president emphasized that American troops have captured more than 400,000 tons of weapons and explosives in Iraq.
“But Senator Kerry doesn’t talk about that, perhaps because it might remind people exactly how dangerous Saddam Hussein was, and how right our president was to remove him from power,” Mr. Cheney said.
“John Kerry is playing armchair general, and he’s not doing a very good job of it,” he said.
Stephen Dinan, traveling with the Kerry campaign, contributed to this report from Iowa and Minnesota.