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Kerry challenges Bush troop plan

Democrat says withdrawal send 'wrong signal' to allies

Sen. John Kerry speaks Wednesday to members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
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CINCINNATI, Ohio (CNN) -- Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Wednesday blasted President Bush's plan to withdraw 70,000 U.S. troops from Asia and Europe, saying it isn't the right time for such a move.

Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the same group to which Bush announced his plan Monday, Kerry said the president's plan is vague and would take too long to achieve.

He also said some aspects of it could be dangerous.

"For example, why are we withdrawing unilaterally 12,000 troops from the Korean peninsula at the very time that we are negotiating with North Korea, a country that really has nuclear weapons?" the decorated Vietnam veteran asked at the VFW's 105th annual meeting.

"As Sen. John McCain said, 'I'm particularly concerned about moving troops out of South Korea when North Korea has probably never been more dangerous at any time since the end of the Korean War,' " Kerry quoted the Republican senator as saying.

On Monday, in a warmly received appearance before the veterans, Bush told the VFW convention that over the next decade, 60,000 to 70,000 uniformed personnel and about 100,000 family members and civilian employees currently living abroad will be brought home.

The plan will result in a "more agile and more flexible force" to better fight terrorism, the president said. Troops will be moved to new locations "so they can surge quickly to deal with unexpected threats."

Bush said the plan had been in the works for three years, and U.S. allies and Congress were consulted on it.

Kerry told the veterans Bush's plan "sends the wrong signal to withdraw from Europe and the Far East now when we need to cultivate those allies" to help fight the war on terror.

"We need closer alliances in every part of the world. I will be a commander in chief who renews our alliances," the four-term senator from Massachusetts said.

While Kerry received applause from the audience, some in the crowd signaled their displeasure with the candidate.

There was at least one heckler, and two men stood with their backs to Kerry during his speech.

"He turned his back on his comrades in Vietnam, so I turn my back on him," Jere Hill, one of the men told CNN.

Kerry, whose Navy service in Vietnam earned him several medals, angered some Vietnam veterans when he returned home to become a prominent anti-war activist. At that time, he spoke of "atrocities" committed by U.S. soldiers. More recently, he has said he regrets his choice of words.

Rice responds

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice rejected Kerry's criticism on Wednesday.

Rice said the plan has been developed in close consultation with U.S. allies -- and that she does not believe it will send the wrong message to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

"I would assume that Kim Jong-Il is able to assess capabilities, not numbers. And the numbers have nothing to do with our capability there," Rice told CNN. "In the 50 years since the end of the Korean war, a lot has changed. The South Korean forces are stronger. Our forces are more capable technologically. Our air and sea power contribute more to the deterrent. This is a very powerful deterrent against Kim Jong-Il."

Kerry again called for the creation of a national director of intelligence, a position also recommended by the 9/11 commission in its final report on the terror attacks against the United States in 2001.

Bush has also called for such a post, but has not publicly endorsed the idea that a new director would have full budget authority as called for by the 9/11 panel.

Kerry said that as president, he would immediately reform the country's intelligence system "so that policy is guided by facts and facts are never distorted by politics."

And the Democratic candidate said he would fight the war on terror in a "smarter, more effective" manner.

In a previous speech, Kerry had said that he would fight a "more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror" by reaching out to other nations and bringing them to the U.S.' side.

Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney derided the remark, saying that America had never won any wars by being sensitive.

Wednesday, Kerry told the veterans there is a "right way and a wrong way to be strong."

"Strength is more than tough words," he said.

"We've become a country divided over Iraq. I know what we have to do in Iraq. We need a president who has the credibility to bring out allies to our side, because that's the right way to get the job done in Iraq and bring out troops home."

CNN's Steve Brusk contributed to this report.

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