Candidates try to mine missing Iraqi explosives

LITITZ, Pa. – President Bush accused Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry on Wednesday of “saying almost anything to get elected” for trying to make a campaign issue out of missing high-grade Iraqi explosives without knowing all the details.

Campaigning in Iowa, Kerry fired back, accusing the White House of “dodging and bobbing and weaving in their usual effort to avoid responsibility.”

With six days to go before Tuesday’s election, Bush tried to reach out to Democratic voters in stops here, in Ohio and in suburban Detroit. But the 380 tons of explosives that disappeared from an Iraqi weapons facility overshadowed that effort and forced him to defend his handling of the Iraq war, the cornerstone of his re-election bid.

“Now the senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign policy adviser admits we do not know the facts,” Bush told a rally in Lititz. “Think about that. The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts.”

However, L. Paul Bremer, the former top American civilian in Iraq, has publicly acknowledged that there weren’t enough U.S. troops in Iraq to secure the country’s huge ammunition dumps, guard its borders and restore order after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. The Bush administration ignored repeated warnings about chaos in Iraq from the military, intelligence agencies and the State Department.

Bush’s comments Wednesday were his first about the explosives. The interim Iraqi government earlier this month told the International Atomic Energy Agency about the missing cache. The IAEA informed the Bush administration about it on Oct. 15. The administration announced that the disappearance is under investigation.

“This investigation is important and it’s ongoing,” Bush said. “And a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief.”

Kerry has aggressively used the missing explosives to attack Bush’s stewardship of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. Kerry had planned to spend Wednesday concentrating on economic issues for the middle class, but he seemed eager instead to engage the president on the missing explosives again.

“Mr. President, for the sake of our brave men and women in uniform, for the sake of those troops who are in danger, because of your wrong decisions, you owe America real answers about what happened – not just political attacks,” Kerry said in Rochester, Minn. “Our troops are doing a heroic job; the president, the commander in chief, is not doing his job.”

Citing news reports, Kerry and his advisers accused Bush of ignoring warnings from the IAEA before and after the war that the al Qaqaa military installation contained HMX and RDX explosives, small amounts of which can be used to destroy airplanes and detonate nuclear bombs.

But news reports have also indicated that there could have been a period between the last IAEA inspection in March 2003 and the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 when Saddam loyalists could have emptied the installation. Kerry advisers conceded that possibility Wednesday.

“There is a window that’s available there where, either just prior to or just after the invasion, there could have been an opportunity for either Saddam to move the weapons or for something happening after that facility had been abandoned,” Kerry senior adviser Michael McCurry said.

However, U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday said it was unlikely that the Iraqis could have moved that quantity of explosives without being spotted by U.S. reconnaissance satellites, planes or aerial drones.

Kerry also retreated from his assertion Tuesday that “our young American forces are being shot at from weapons stolen from the ammo dumps that this president didn’t think were important enough to guard.”

By Wednesday he was emphasizing that such explosives “could” be used against U.S. troops. “We should not have suggested specifically that … those high explosives have been used,” McCurry said.

Campaigning in Washington, Pa., Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that U.S. forces have seized 400,000 tons of weapons and explosives in Iraq.

The amount of seized explosives may not be good news for the Bush campaign, however. Estimates of Saddam’s munitions stockpiles before the war ran up to 2 million tons, and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said 250,000 tons of munitions and explosives from Iraq are still missing.

“This administration has no idea where the hell it is,” said Biden, who’s mentioned as a potential secretary of state in a Kerry administration. “My kid and other kids may get their ass blown up over there because of their incompetence.”

Bush spent much of Wednesday trying to woo Democratic voters. Sen. Zell Miller, the tough-talking Georgia Democrat who spoke at the Republican National Convention, accompanied Bush on the three-state swing.

“I’m a proud Republican, but I believe my policies appeal to many Democrats,” Bush said in Lititz. “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.”

In Pontiac, Mich., Bush met with African-American civic leaders, ministers and entertainers, including boxing promoter Don King.

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