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Kerry suggests Iraq deadline may be 'arbitrary'

Bush reaffirms commitment to June 30 power handover

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is questioning the deadline for the transfer of power in Iraq, suggesting Tuesday that June 30 is an "arbitrary date" that may have more to do with politics at home than stability in that country.

"I have always said consistently that it is a mistake to set an arbitrary date, and I hope that date has nothing to do with the election here in the United States," Kerry told reporters in Ohio, where he talked about his plan to revitalize the economy. "The test of a turnover of sovereignty is the stability of Iraq, not an arbitrary date."

The war in Iraq has become an issue in the presidential campaign, with Kerry and other Democrats charging the Bush administration misled the country about the need to go to war and failed to anticipate the difficulty of rebuilding that country.

Bush has consistently maintained that toppling the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has made the world safer, and Republicans charge Kerry has sent out mixed signals on Iraq by voting for the war but later questioning the mission.

Kerry's comment comes amid renewed violence against U.S. forces in Iraq and at a time when Bush has affirmed publicly his commitment to the June 30 handover date.

Bush, in fact, mentioned that date again Tuesday during an appearance in Arkansas, where he talked about the economy and job training.

As he often does with speeches outside Washington, Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam from power. Bush vowed not to "cut and run" in Iraq, saying recent deadly attacks on both military forces and U.S. civilians in Iraq would not deter his goal of helping Iraqis build a democratic country.

"We will pass sovereignty on June 30," Bush told the audience at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, Arkansas. "We will stay the course in Iraq. We're not going to be intimidated by thugs or assassins. We're not going to cut and run from the people who long for freedom. Because you know what? We understand a free Iraq is an historic opportunity to help change the world to be more peaceful."

Other Democrats are also raising questions about the handover date.

In an interview Tuesday with CNN, Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ran through a list of questions he said haven't been answered about the transfer of power.

"Who is in charge? What role is the United Nations going to play? Is NATO going to come in? What has to be done to get NATO in," Biden asked. "[These are] questions that everybody knows have to be answered, and the concern people have is that there seems to continue to be a real debate within the administration on how to proceed."

Monday, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts infuriated Republicans when he charged that Iraq had become "Bush's Vietnam." One Republican senator denounced the statement as "outrageous"

In a separate interview with CNN, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, said the country was more stable than recent news reports would suggest.

"There is no question we have control of the country," he said. "I know if you just report on a few places, it does look chaotic, but if you travel around the country -- and I was driving north on two different trips last week -- you find a bustling economy, people driving around, people opening businesses right and left."

But Kerry, in his comments to reporters, said the administration has failed to provide a complete assessment of how things will unfold in Iraq during the transfer of power.

"We have to be successful in Iraq. I've said that many times," Kerry said. "But we have to be successful by pursuing a policy that makes sense, that brings all nations to the table to understand the stakes. And I think this administration has yet to provide Americans with a thorough understanding of exactly of who we are turning the authority over to in June and precisely what the consequences of that will be."

But there is support for having a firm date for a transfer of power, including some supportive words from a high-ranking member of the Clinton administration.

"By setting a date, it at least forces the parties to think very constructively how they can put a governing authority together at the short term before they have election by January of next year," former Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

CNN's Bob Franken contributed to this report.


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