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Iraq Likely to Be Major US Political Issue in 2006

The situation in Iraq dominated the U.S. political scene during 2005 and is likely to do so again in 2006.

U.S. public support for the war in Iraq slipped during much of 2005, prompting President Bush to give a series of speeches at the end of the year to rebuild support for the effort there.

In a departure from his previous approach, Mr. Bush adopted a more conciliatory tone, admitted some mistakes and spoke directly to his political opponents. "I have heard your disagreement and I know how deeply it is felt," said the president. "Yet now there are only two options before our country: victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance."

Recent polls suggest the president may be making some headway. A Washington Post-ABC News survey showed the president's public approval rating up to 47 percent in late December, an eight-point improvement from the same poll in early November. The survey also suggested a slight increase in the number of Americans who have an optimistic view of the situation in Iraq in the wake of recent elections.

Historically, public support for the mission in Iraq is closely tied to developments there. An upsurge in U.S. casualties or violence in general tends to soften support in domestic opinion polls.

Stuart Rothenberg is an independent political analyst and a guest on VOA's Talk to America program. "I tend to actually think it is more the absolute level of violence and the perception that there is little or no progress in terminating the military action and bringing democracy and some sort of stable government to Iraq," he said.

Prior to the recent polls showing a slight upsurge, President Bush's approval rating had plummeted to around 40 percent, due largely to concern over Iraq, domestic fuel prices, and the much criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in late August.

Opposition Democrats sought to exploit the president's political weakness, but also found themselves divided over Iraq.

Congressman John Murtha, a conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, intensified the Iraq debate with a call for a phased withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. forces within six months.

Other Democrats were reluctant to support a firm timetable for withdrawal and instead are pushing the Bush administration to be more specific on the training of Iraqi forces and when U.S. troops can start to leave. "The president has had a number of speeches," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, "and he is still not focused on what needs to be done in convincing the American people and showing the American people what his plan is in Iraq."

Some Democrats complain that the president's speeches have contained little that is new and amount to an exercise in cheerleading. They point to polls that indicate a majority of Americans want to start bringing home U.S. troops from Iraq during 2006.

But political experts say the president's intensive effort to reverse the slide in public support on Iraq may be bearing fruit. "What Bush can do with the bully pulpit is reduce his losses," explains Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, "and he is trying to cut those losses by convincing people to give him a bit more time before the withdrawals start."

In fact, some analysts believe the president may be setting the stage to claim success in Iraq if the situation there stabilizes over the next few months in the wake of the recent elections. "We will be drawing down some troops," says Stuart Rothenberg. "If the president wants to try to turn that into the beginning of a success, he actually, I think, has some opportunity."

Both the president and his Republican allies, who control the Senate and the House of Representatives, will face a major test in the 2006 congressional midterm elections. Historically, the president's party suffers losses in the mid-term elections of a second presidential term.

Analysts like Larry Sabato say the early betting is that Republicans could lose seats in November, especially if the situation in Iraq is not going well. "That is a major problem for President Bush and the Republicans," says Mr. Sabato. "The Democrats are bound to benefit from it in the mid-term elections of 2006. The question is, to what degree?"

Analysts say the president would benefit if the situation in Iraq improves during 2006. But they also say success will only increase public pressure to bring home U.S. troops.