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US Democrats Remain Split Over Iraq

President Bush will speak in Philadelphia Monday as he continues his campaign to bolster sagging domestic support for the war in Iraq. But opposition Democrats are far from unified on what they believe should be done in Iraq.

Democrats were split on whether to support President Bush before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and they remain divided now over what should happen next.

The debate within the Democratic Party intensified in the wake of the recent proposal from Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha to begin an immediate phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Congressman Murtha is a conservative Democrat, a decorated Vietnam veteran and strong support of the military. His decision to turn against the war sent shock waves through the Democratic Party.

"It is not about me," said Mr. Murtha. "It is about what the public has been saying for a long time. The public has been way ahead of the administration, way ahead of Congress."

Another Democrat with a pessimistic view of Iraq is the national party chairman, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He spoke recently with Texas radio station WOAI.

"I wish the president paid more attention to the history of Iraq before we had gotten in there," he said. "The idea that we are going to win this war is an idea that is, unfortunately, just plain wrong."

Mr. Dean's pronouncement brought swift condemnations from Republicans as well as several Democrats who oppose the idea of a swift U.S. exit from Iraq.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, is a strong supporter of President Bush's policy on Iraq.

"We cannot afford to lose," he said. "The cost of victory in Iraq will be large in the United States, but the cost of defeat would be disastrous."

Support for the war has been slipping in U.S. public opinion polls for months and a majority of Americans now believe the Iraq war was a mistake.

But political analysts say the Democratic Party debate over Iraq reflects growing public uncertainty about what the United States should do now.

"Democrats are split on it and I think what has come across to most people in America is that the predominant view in the Democratic Party is for near total withdrawal as soon as possible," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "That is not where the American people are."

Among those who support Congressman Murtha's proposal for a phased withdrawal is the leader of Democrats in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California.

But most Democrats have so far declined to support the Murtha proposal and Congresswoman Pelosi says there is no organized effort to have Democrats coalesce around one specific alternative plan on Iraq.

"More of the same is not making the American people safer," she said. "More of the same is not making our military stronger. More of the same is not bringing stability to the region. And all of the initiatives that have come forth from right to left in our caucus have been about when, not if, we should reduce our forces in Iraq."

Many analysts say that given how unpopular the Iraq effort is at the moment, they see a good chance for Democratic gains in the 2006 congressional midterm elections when all 435 House seats and one-third of the 100-member Senate will be up for election.

But University of Maryland political expert Bill Galston says pressure will grow on Democrats to put forward a more detailed plan on what to do about Iraq and U.S. foreign policy in general.

"The Democratic Party has had a problem with foreign policy since the days of Vietnam," he said. "For various reasons, that problem has never been fully addressed. It is now clear that the time has come for the Democratic Party to agree on a foreign policy."

University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato says it is still too early to know what the political impact of the Iraq issue will be around the time of congressional elections next November.

"They [the public] also do not want an immediate pullout," he added. "They want something that is akin to what President Nixon used to call peace with honor in Vietnam. So, Iraq hurts Bush more than the Democrats but I think the Democrats have complicated the picture for them and made it less likely that they will benefit as fully as they might have from Iraq."

Congressional Republicans are also hoping for good news from Iraq over the next year to help their political fortunes. They fear that public pessimism over Iraq could allow Democrats to make gains in next year's congressional elections.