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September Looms As Key Month in US Debate Over Iraq


September is looming as a key month in the U.S. political debate over the war in Iraq. Congressional Democrats and a growing number of Republicans say they will take a hard look at how President Bush's military surge strategy is working in Iraq by then and whether changes will be needed to the U.S. approach. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

A new public opinion poll indicated a majority of Americans continue to have a pessimistic view of the situation in Iraq. The survey by the USA Today newspaper and the Gallup polling organization showed a majority of those asked believe Iraq is headed for civil war regardless of whether U.S. troops stay there or are withdrawn.

The poll said about 60 percent of those surveyed favor a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, while 36 percent said the U.S. should stay in Iraq until the situation there improves.

President Bush vetoed Democratic efforts to set a timetable for troop withdrawals, but there are signs that some Republicans are responding to public sentiment for a drawdown of U.S. forces.

"If by September we do not see clear signs of progress, then I think we have to face reality and start planning for a complete change of mission," said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine.

Another moderate Republican, Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, told NBC's Today program that other Republicans may press for changes in Iraq if the president's surge strategy does not produce quick results.

Smith was one of only two Senate Republicans to support a Democratic funding bill that included a troop withdrawal timetable.

"I only speak for one Republican senator, but I know what I hear from many Republican senators, and that means that many of them will simply change their votes and Chuck Hagel and I will not be the only ones calling on the president to put the troops in a new place," he said.

Senator Collins and other moderate Republicans have also become election targets for Democrats who hope to use mounting public sentiment against the war to put them on the defensive when they seek re-election next year.

An anti-war group called VoteVets.org has started running television ads featuring retired Major General John Batiste, who was a top U.S. military commander in Iraq during much of 2004.

"Mr. President, you did not listen," he said. "You continue to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps. I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril."

Republican supporters of the president's strategy in Iraq have fired back at critics and accused them of wanting to abandon the U.S. mission there and plunge Iraq into chaos.

Republican Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri recently returned from Iraq and said the troop surge strategy is beginning to pay dividends.

"We have made great progress in al Anbar," he said. "All of the Sunni tribal chieftains are cooperating with us. Obviously, this is very early. But I think the signs are extremely positive and what our troops need is funding now for the rest of the year, not death by a thousand cuts."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress Wednesday that the administration expects to have a better sense of how their new strategy is working within a few months.

"I consider it my responsibility and I think General [David] Petraeus and the chairman [of the military joint chiefs, General Peter Pace] consider it their responsibility to give the president and the Congress an honest evaluation of whether the strategy is working or not in September," he said.

Political analysts say the public's increasingly negative view of the Iraq war has put Republicans in a political bind. Commentator David Aikman writes for the American Spectator magazine and is a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

"It is a difficult line to walk," he said. "How to respond to the clear desire of most Americans to get the American troops home and the sort of philosophical commitment and political commitment of the Republican Party and President Bush not to be seen, so to speak, to be being chased out of Iraq and to turning tail."

Several polls have also suggested that despite the desire to move U.S. troops out of harms way, many Americans are concerned about leaving Iraq too abruptly and sparking a wider civil war.

"How do you get out? How do you leave a stable situation, not a democracy, but just a stable situation so people are not killing each other," said James Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. " It is complex in a civil war and America, I think, understands that. But they are just getting tired of the money being spent and, more importantly, our young people dying over there."

Republican presidential contenders are also hoping for progress in Iraq by later this year. Nine of the 10 announced Republican candidates support the president's approach on Iraq. But they are also mindful of polls that indicate the Democratic contenders for the White House may have an advantage in next year's election because of public unhappiness over the war.

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