ATLANTA - Jimmy Carter, whose own presidency was marred by a hostage crisis, said Wednesday he is saddened by the kidnappings and killings of Americans in Iraq and believes John Kerry should make U.S. policy toward that country the top issue in his presidential campaign.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Carter commented on the hostage-takings in Iraq as the family of fellow Georgian Jack Hensley learned that he had been beheaded by his captors. He was the second American hostage killed there by Islamic extremists in as many days.
"As much as any president in history, I was afflicted psychologically and politically by the holding of American hostages," Mr. Carter said. "So my heart goes out to all those who are involved in a similar crisis, particularly the Hensley family."
Sixty-three hostages were taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and were held during the last 444 days of Mr. Carter's term. They were freed as President Reagan was sworn into office Jan. 20, 1981.
Mr. Carter's failure to free the hostages was a key issue in the Democrat's 1980 loss to Mr. Reagan.
Mr. Carter, who will turn 80 on Oct. 1, said Mr. Kerry needs to focus his campaign on Iraq and terrorism to defeat President Bush in November.
"The overwhelming issue in this country is the Iraqi war and the war against terrorism and who can address those problems more wisely and more honestly," Mr. Carter said. "I think that's the issue that Kerry has to pursue, because, in my opinion, President Bush has not been honest with the American people and has certainly failed in almost everything he professes to be doing in Iraq and in Afghanistan, unfortunately."
Mr. Carter has been a critic of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. He said the apparent open-ended presence of U.S. troops there contributes to the violence, including hostage-takings.
"A lot of political analysts have said that one of the main reasons the Bush-Cheney administration went into Iraq was to establish a permanent military base there," he said. "I think this arouses a great deal of unnecessary opposition."
Mr. Kerry, who trails Mr. Bush in most polls, can turn the race's momentum around during upcoming presidential debates, he said.
"That will be Kerry's chance to show the American people what he's made of and what he really believes and to draw a clear distinction between himself and President Bush," Mr. Carter said.