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Kennedy counters Bush on Iraq

Says al Qaeda bigger threat than Saddam

Sen. Edward Kennedy talks with former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, left, and Sen. Carl Levin.
Sen. Edward Kennedy talks with former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, left, and Sen. Carl Levin.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Joining what appears to be a growing Democratic chorus, Sen. Edward Kennedy Friday challenged President Bush's request to use military force against Iraq.

The Senate's preeminent liberal said the Bush administration had failed to make a convincing case that war against Iraq was the only way to deal with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whom the U.S. and British governments accuse of developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions.

"I have come here today to express my view that America should not go to war against Iraq unless and until other reasonable alternatives are exhausted," Kennedy said in a speech before the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the top goal of U.S. policy toward Iraq should be to get weapons inspectors back on the job without conditions. And he said the country should work closely with the United Nations to force Saddam to comply with resolutions on disarmament that came at the close of the Persian Gulf War.

Kennedy hinted at recent Democratic complaints that the Bush administration has politicized the issue of national security and has impugned Democrats who try to engage the administration in debate about what course of action to take.

"It is possible to love America while concluding that it is not now wise to go to war," Kennedy said. "The standard that should guide us is especially clear when lives are on the line. We must ask what is right for our country and not party."

Lott: U.S. will get 'international support'

Talking to reporters during Kennedy's speech, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott rejected the criticism that the Bush administration was embarking on a risky, unilateral approach to Iraq.

"We are going to get international support," Lott, R-Mississippi, said. "It is not just going to be the United States and Great Britain. There will be a lot of other who will be involved. But also we are not going to, the United States is not going to just stand still, stand mute and allow this issue to continue to fester and become a greater and greater threat to all of us."

Kennedy conceded that Saddam is dangerous, but said al Qaeda terrorists are a more imminent threat than Iraq.

Striking at Iraq, Kennedy said, could undermine the international cooperation in sharing intelligence information and apprehending terrorists.

"To succeed in our global war against Al Qaeda and terrorism, the United States depends on military, law enforcement, and intelligence support from many other nations ... It is far from clear that these essential relationships will be able to survive the strain of a war with Iraq that comes before the alternatives are tried or without the support of an international coalition," Kennedy said.

Kennedy's speech follows one Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who blasted the Bush administration for what he described as its efforts to exploit the war for political gain. Monday, former Vice President Al Gore also challenged Bush on his Iraq policy.

Gore's speech appeared to have energized some Democrats who have privately been voicing concerns about the Bush approach.

Kennedy warned that a war with Iraq could trigger Baghdad's use of weapons of mass destruction, and possibly start a wider, destabilizing conflict in the Middle East.

At the same time, Kennedy said the use of force may prove inevitable, should weapons inspections fail. But he repeatedly stressed his belief that other options, including stronger diplomatic efforts, must be explored first.

"Resorting to war is not America's only or best course at this juncture," Kennedy said. "There are realistic alternatives between doing nothing and declaring unilateral or immediate war. War should be a last resort, not the first response."

He ended the speech by recounting the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The senator said his brother won international support before initiating a blockade around the communist island nation, which had been accepting missiles from what was then the Soviet Union.

-- CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Snow contributed to this report.

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