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Kerry debates anti-war activist in New York

Bush campaign scolds Democrat over stand on Iraq

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry tried to outline a "more thoughtful and more achievable course" in Iraq during an impromptu debate with an anti-war activist Wednesday, but he said the United States cannot leave behind a "failed Iraq."

President Bush's campaign, meanwhile, accused Kerry of playing politics with the war in Iraq, where more than 80 American troops have been killed this month battling Sunni insurgents and Shiite militants.

And a Republican congressman accused Kerry of offering vague criticism of the occupation that only plants "seeds of doubt and confusion."

At a question-and-answer session at City College campus in Harlem, semi-retired math teacher Walter Daum accused Kerry -- a onetime anti-war activist -- of supporting an "imperialist war" in Iraq.

"You say you are a stark difference from George Bush," said the 64-year-old Daum. "People hate George Bush, but by the end of your presidency, they'll hate you for the same thing."

Kerry voted for the congressional resolution that gave Bush the authorization to invade Iraq, but he said Bush "made a terrible mistake to take us to war the way that he did."

"I have consistently been critical of how we got where we are," Kerry responded. "But we are where we are, sir, and it would be unwise beyond belief for the United States of America to leave a failed Iraq in its wake."

The Massachusetts senator, and presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said the Bush administration has failed to draw international support that would lend legitimacy to the occupation and a new Iraqi government.

A banner hanging at the campus forum demanded a U.S. withdrawal, but Kerry said that would leave "the potential for civil war."

"The course that I have proposed is to turn over to the United Nations the full responsibility for the transformation of the government and for the reconstruction," he said.

"Because I believe that as long as it is an American occupation, we will have great difficulty in staying any course and achieving the kind of stability we want to achieve."

At news conference after the forum, Kerry said: "We should not only be tough, we have to be smart -- and there's a smarter way to accomplish this mission than this president is pursuing."

Kerry campaigned in the city with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York --their first time on the trail together. They were joined at the City College forum by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York.

Kerry touted a scaled-back version of a national service program that would pay tuition for about 200,000 public college students in exchange for two years of national service and pay part-time fees for 300,000.

Kerry originally proposed paying tuition for 500,000 students, funding the program by reforming the direct student loan program.

But aides said he had to scale back that proposal due to the federal budget deficit, currently projected to run about $480 billion.

The Bush campaign and its Republican allies accused Kerry of trying to exploit the trouble in Iraq for his political benefit.

Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, speaking on behalf of the Bush campaign, said Kerry's argument was "just a lot of criticism and pessimism."

"He is saying that we should hand over power to the United Nations," Weinberger said. "The United Nations is totally incapable of doing any kind of job as pacifying or removing terrorism from a country like Iraq."

Rep. Peter King of New York said Kerry has offered only "sideline criticisms and back-seat driving" as an alternative to Bush's proposals.

"If he is going to criticize the president, he should say what he would do differently and not just make general statements," King said.

"By putting out ambiguous statements like that, he's only sowing seeds of doubt and confusion."

King said Kerry's attacks on Bush were particularly dismissive of those U.S. allies who are contributing troops to the occupation.

"For him to be belittling that really flies in the face of how he's going to bring some allied coalition to assist us in Iraq," King said.

In a press conference Tuesday night, Bush acknowledged that the United States had suffered some "tough weeks" in Iraq, but he said his administration would "finish the work of the fallen."

He said American commanders would have as many troops as they felt necessary to battle the Shiite uprising south of Baghdad and the Sunni insurgents in Fallujah.

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