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Carter: Turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan likely 2004 campaign issue

Says administration 'seriously disillusioned' on Iraq

Former President Jimmy Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Faulting the Bush administration for an "overly optimistic assessment" of Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion, former President Jimmy Carter said the turmoil there and in Afghanistan are legitimate issues for Democrats to highlight as campaign issues for 2004.

But he suggested Democrats have to be careful in how they focus on Iraq, drawing a distinction between the invasion itself and the aftermath.

"There was no doubt that we could prevail militarily, but I think that the vice president and secretary of defense and others said that we were going to be treated with euphoria, crowds who would welcome us there, and the problems of administration of Iraq's economic and political affairs was going to be an easy job," Carter, the nation's 39th president, said in an interview with CNN's Larry King.

"I think they have been seriously disillusioned, but whether it would have been more accurately predicted if I had been in the White House or someone else, I wouldn't claim that at all."

The interview was taped Wednesday with King in Los Angeles, California, and Carter appearing on the program from Washington.

In the interview, Carter said the invasion itself is not a winning issue for Democrats because most people believe toppling Saddam Hussein was a "a good thing."

But the ongoing violence there, often directed at U.S. troops, and the costly challenge of reconstructing that country are areas worth exploring for Democrats, Carter said.

"I think the current situation in Iraq and the continued violence in Iraq and the substantial abandonment of Afghanistan -- where we only control the capital in Kabul and the rest of the country is being taken over by warlords and the Taliban is coming back -- I think those kinds of things are inevitably going to be placed on the agenda for almost all the candidates," Carter said.

At the same time, Carter stressed that the United States could not "back away from Iraq." He said President Bush faces a challenge -- whether to call on other nations to help more or have the United States act "almost always alone with the exception of Great Britain."

Carter said it was important for the United States to "keep control of the military situation."

"I think it's going to be very interesting to see what President Bush says in his upcoming speech to the United Nations," Bush said.

Asked about the new presidential candidacy of Wesley Clark, Carter said he was happy that the former NATO commander had entered the race.

"Just two candidates have asked my opinion about whether they should run for president or not, and I've advised both of them to become candidates, and he's one of them," Carter said, identifying the other as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Carter said, however, he would not signal a preference for who the Democratic nominee should be in 2004.

King's interview with the former president came on the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords, the September 17, 1978 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that Carter brokered.

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