John Edwards yesterday said President Bush's administration is "reckless and irresponsible" for failing to secure a huge weapons site in Iraq.
"It's not even ignoring these mistakes or being clueless about them; George Bush has failed. He has failed as commander in chief. He has failed as President," Mr. Edwards told about 2,500 supporters at the SeaGate Convention Centre, many of them United Auto Workers members.
Mr. Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, referred to a report by The New York Times that the Iraqi interim government has warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons of conventional explosives - used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads, and detonate nuclear weapons - are missing from a former military installation in Iraq.
"This is exactly the kind of explosives that terrorists want," said Mr. Edwards, a U.S. senator from North Carolina. "They're easy to transport, they're easy to conceal, and powerful. "
The Times reported that the American military was supposed to be in charge of the huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, but it is now a no man's land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday.
United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year.
Mr. Edwards said less than one pound of the material was used to take down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and larger amounts were apparently used in the bombing of a housing complex in November, 2003, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the blasts in a Moscow apartment complex in September, 1999, that killed nearly 300 people.
The explosives could also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, which was why international nuclear inspectors had kept a watch on the material, and even sealed and locked some of it. The other components of an atom bomb - the design and the radioactive fuel - are more difficult to obtain.
Mr. Edwards said yesterday in Toledo that the American people need to know whether Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney "ignored this grave danger, and whether they made excuses about this grave incompetence."
"When John Kerry is our president and our commander-in-chief, he will keep this country safe. He has had a clear message for our troops, 'We are with you'; to the terrorists, 'We will hunt you down'; and to the American people, 'We will keep you safe,'●" Mr. Edwards said.
Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Mr. Bush's campaign, said John Kerry and Mr. Edwards are "grasping at headlines to obscure their record of weakness and indecision in the war on terror."
"Saddam Hussein's government stored weapons in mosques, schools, hospitals, and countless other locations throughout Iraq. Our forces have discovered and destroyed thousands of tons of weapons of all types.
"John Kerry and John Edwards still cannot decide whether Saddam Hussein was a threat or was not a threat. So, it's quite astonishing that John Kerry and John Edwards continue to change their position on the threat Saddam Hussein's weapons posed, depending on the news headline of the day," Mr. Madden said.
Teri Crial, who works at a Ford plant in the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park, applauded Mr. Edwards and reflected the level of distrust among Democrats about Mr. Bush.
Ms. Crial, 46, said she suspected Mr. Bush would announce shortly before the election that the U.S. had found the missing 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives.
Mr. Edwards used the rest of his speech in a sweeping attack on Mr. Bush and his policies.
He said over the last four years, 5 million people have lost their health insurance, 4 million have "fallen into poverty," and over 1 million private-sector jobs have been lost.
Mr. Edwards accused Mr. Bush of trying to "privatize" Social Security and cited an article in Fortune magazine - "not a magazine that all of us read but George Bush's friends read it'' - that the Social Security Administration is working on the project.
"The way they're going to pay for it? Raise the retirement age to age 72. For George Bush and Dick Cheney, their attitude is, 'What's five more years?' If you've spent 40 years working in a factory, you know what five more years means," Mr. Edwards said.
The Bush campaign denied Mr. Edwards' charge, saying the President's first principle is not to change Social Security benefits for retirees or those approaching retirement.
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