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US Political Debate Over Iraq Intensifies

The politiical debate over Iraq and whether the Bush administration manipulated pre-war intelligence has intensified in the wake of a surprise call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from an influential Democrat in Congress.

Mounting public concern over Iraq spilled into the halls of Congress this week.

Lawmakers from both parties were caught by surprise when Congressman John Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and long considered a hawk on military matters, called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq within six months.

MURTHA: "This is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion."

Before going into politics, Congressman Murtha had a long career in the Marine Corps and was wounded in Vietnam. He supported the Iraq war in 2002 and the Gulf War in 1991.

The Bush White House moved quickly to dismiss the Murtha proposal. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley is traveling with President Bush in Asia.

"We do not see how an immediate pullout contributes to winning the war on terror and brings stability to Iraq or how it makes America, the United States, more secure," said Mr. Hadley.

The debate over Iraq has sharply escalated in tone as well. Vice President Dick Cheney lashed out at Democrats in a speech for criticizing the administration's efforts in Iraq and for continuing to raise allegations that pre-war intelligence was manipulated, a charge administration officials deny.

"That the president of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city," said Mr. Cheney.

That in turn sparked an attack from Congressman Murtha on the vice president's lack of service during the Vietnam War.

"I like guys who have got five deferments [excused from the military draft] and have never been there [in combat] and send people to war and then do not like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done," said Mr. Murtha.

The intensifying debate over Iraq comes at a time when public approval of the president's job performance is at an all time low and polls suggest that Americans are more pessimistic than ever about the prospects for success in Iraq.

John Mueller is a political science professor at Ohio State University who has studied the impact of public opinion during wartime.

He says the surprise withdrawal call from Congressman Murtha comes at a time when the president is vigorously trying to rebuild public support for the war effort.

"It is another added problem from the Bush administration standpoint and what I would expect is that this is simply going to continue and gradually increase in intensity and directness," said Mr. Mueller.

But leading Democrats seem reluctant to embrace the Murtha proposal. Many Democrats believe they were hurt during last year's presidential and congressional elections, because they were perceived by the public as weak on terrorism and national security issues.

Conservative analysts acknowledge that the continuing troubles in Iraq are at the heart of the president's public approval problems at the moment.

But they also say President Bush has proved to be resilient in the past and could rebound politically in the remaining years of his second term.

John Fortier is a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"I think the president is not in a good position now," said Mr. Fortier. "He has got to hope that he does not fall further [in the polls]. There are still three years left, chance to move around, presidents have turned it around and he should hope he can. That may be in foreign policy, as many presidents have found that avenue. But [he needs] something, some way to show that he is still a leader that can dominate the agenda. [That] would help him significantly."

In the short term, though, political experts say the president desperately needs some good news out of Iraq, which some suggest could come from elections there next month.

Once again, Ohio State Professor John Mueller.

"Even if they say there is light at the end of the tunnel, they have to admit that the tunnel is a very long one and that the costs to get through the tunnel, assuming there is a light there, are quite extensive," he added.

In the meantime, the renewed focus on Iraq has also hampered efforts to revive other aspects of the president's domestic agenda. For example, legislative action on pension reform and extending tax cuts have been delayed indefinitely.