By Patricia Wilson
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. (Reuters) - Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said on Monday he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing force against Iraq even if he had known then no weapons of mass destruction would be found.
Taking up a challenge from President Bush, whom he will face in the Nov. 2 election, the Massachusetts senator said: "I'll answer it directly. Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it is the right authority for a president to have but I would have used that authority effectively."
Speaking to reporters from the Powell's Landing on the rim of the Grand Canyon above a mile-deep drop, Kerry also said reducing U.S. troops in Iraq significantly by next August was "an appropriate goal."
"My goal, my diplomacy, my statesmanship is to get our troops reduced in number and I believe if you do the statesmanship properly, I believe if you do the kind of alliance building that is available to us, that it's appropriate to have a goal of reducing the troops over that period of time," he said.
On that timetable, Kerry's aim would be to pull out a large number of the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in the first six months of his administration.
"Obviously, we'd have to see how events unfold," he added. "I intend to get more people involved in that effort and I'm convinced I can be more successful than President Bush in succeeding in doing that. It is an appropriate goal to have and I'm going to try to achieve it."
Kerry refused to say if he had any private assurances from Arab or European nations that they would help with security and reconstruction in Iraq but said "right now the administration ... is scrambling and struggling to try to find a way to do that."
"All of this should have happened in the beginning, all of these things should have been achieved beforehand," he said. "American presidents should not send American forces into war without a plan to win the peace."
Bush last week challenged Kerry, who Republicans accuse of flip-flopping on Iraq by voting for the war resolution and against the $87 billion request to fund operations, to say straight out if he would have voted the same way if only to eliminate the danger that Saddam Hussein could have developed weapons of mass destruction.
"Now, there are some questions that a commander-in-chief needs to answer with a clear yes or no," Bush said. "My opponent hasn't answered the question of whether knowing what we know now, he would have supported going into Iraq."
"I have given my answer," Bush said. "We did the right thing, and the world is better off for it."
Kerry challenged Bush to answer some questions of his own -- why he rushed to war without a plan for the peace, why he used faulty intelligence, why he misled Americans about how he would go to war and why he had not brought other countries to the table.
"There are four not hypothetical questions like the president's, real questions that matter to Americans and I hope you'll get the answers to those questions, because the American people deserve them," he told reporters.
Kerry, who is on day 11 of a two-week coast-to-coast campaign trip, used the majestic backdrop of the Grand Canyon to criticize Bush for neglecting America's national parks system and pledged to restore $600 million he said the president had cut from the budget.