Former President Carter (search) said Wednesday that the apparent open-ended presence of U.S. troops in Iraq has contributed to the wave of hostage-takings and other bloodshed.  

"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," Carter said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think this arouses a great deal of unnecessary opposition."

Carter's remarks came as the family of fellow Georgian Jack Hensley (search) learned that the contractor had been beheaded by his captors in Iraq. 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," Carter said. "So my heart goes out to all those who are involved in a similar crisis, particularly the Hensley family."

Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days in Iran during Carter's term. They were freed the day President Reagan (search) was sworn into office in 1981.

Carter's failure to free the hostages was a key issue in the Democrat's 1980 election loss to Reagan.

Carter, who will turn 80 on Oct. 1, said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) 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," 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."

Kerry, who trails Bush in most polls, can turn the race's momentum around during three upcoming presidential debates, said Carter, who shocked political analysts in 1976 by going from a relatively unknown Southern governor to winning the White House.