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Washington Debate over Iraq Intensifies


President Bush continued his push to bolster domestic support for the administration's efforts in Iraq Wednesday. Mr. Bush's critics show no signs of backing down.

The president's latest focus is economic and reconstruction progress in Iraq, which he says shows that his policy is succeeding.

Mr. Bush again rejected the idea put forward by some Democrats to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"In the past, al-Qaida has said that American pullouts from Lebanon and Somalia showed them that America was weak and could be made to run," said Mr. Bush. "And now the terrorists think they can make America run in Iraq and that is not going to happen so long as I am in the Commander in Chief."

The president is attempting to rebuild public support for the Iraq War, support that has slipped during the past several months in numerous public-opinion polls.

But many opposition Democrats remain critical of the administration's approach in Iraq, though they are not in agreement on what should happen next.

Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, a conservative Democrat and Vietnam War veteran who initially supported the war, intensified the debate over Iraq recently when he proposed a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops over a six-month period.

"This is not a PR battle. This is a war, a real war, not a war of words. This is a real war. This is not about Jack Murtha. This is about changing direction. The American people want a change in direction," said Mr. Murtha.

So far, few Democrats have expressed support for the Murtha proposal. Republicans, including Vice President Dick Cheney, are noting that lack of enthusiasm as they try to rally support for the president.

"On this, both Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree," said Mr. Cheney. "The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon our mission. But the world can have confidence in the resolve of the United States. We will stand by our friends."

In recent weeks, however, some Republicans in Congress have pressed the administration to be more specific on how U.S. troops will eventually get out of Iraq.

The administration is also facing criticism from a former top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served as Secretary Powell's chief of staff and was intimately involved in the administration's pre and post-war planning.

"There is a real rational argument, I think, for going after Saddam and removing him from power," he said. "There is no rational argument for having no plan for the aftermath of that removal, and that is what we did."

Just this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld again rejected the notion that the administration underestimated the difficulties in dealing with a post-war Iraq.

"Anyone who had an optimistic view, I think, has confronted reality and it is clearly not easy," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "War is never easy and you never heard a word like that out of my mouth, I do not believe."

Colonel Wilkerson is one of the few former administration officials to openly criticize some aspects of the Iraq effort.

He told VOA that he is experiencing firsthand the intense passions sparked by the current debate over Iraq.

"I certainly am taking a risk. I do not know the depth of it. My wife and I talk about this all the time and she is frightened. We have gotten some phone calls, phone calls that were, you know your husband can be killed. Those are not comforting phone calls for my wife," he added.

Political analysts and foreign policy experts differ over what impact the president's efforts to bolster domestic support will have.

P.J. Crowley is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He is currently an expert on defense and security issues at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning public research organization in Washington.

Colonel Crowley appeared on VOA's Talk to America program.

"Well, I think these are very important speeches, and it is an opportunity for the president to establish a context within which the American people, in particular, can see what is happening in Iraq," said Colonel Crowley.

Other experts caution that all the speeches and debate over Iraq will not have much of an impact until the American public believes that the situation on the ground in Iraq is improving.

John Mueller is an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University.

"Just a lot of cheerleading about the war, repeating things he has said many times before, I think, are very unlikely to make very much difference, particularly over a longer term," said Mr. Mueller.

President Bush's efforts to bolster U.S. public opinion on Iraq are expected to intensify in advance of the December 15 elections there to create a democratically elected government.

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