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US Election Politics Drives Iraq Debate


The ongoing U.S. domestic debate over the war in Iraq is already largely being driven by the politics of the 2008 presidential and congressional elections. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

Democratic congressional leaders are playing what experts like to call political hardball, forcing votes in the House and Senate on proposals that set a timeline for the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq by next April.

Backed by public opinion polls that show most Americans have turned against the war, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and others believe the best strategy for Democrats is to keep up the pressure on President Bush.

"What has happened in Iraq is wrong," Reid said on the CBS program Face the Nation. "We must change course and we [Democrats] are going to continue doing everything we can in a bipartisan manner to focus attention on that and get our troops home."

The president is trying to bolster his Republican supporters in Congress by asserting that the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is improving the security situation in some areas.

Mr. Bush argues that at the very least, Congress should give the strategy more time before imposing troop withdrawal deadlines on U.S. military commanders in the field.

"These successes demonstrate the gains are troops are making in Iraq and the importance of giving our military the time they need to give their new strategy a chance to work," he said.

Caught in the middle of this political debate are a handful of moderate Senate Republicans who reject the president's plea to simply stay the course in Iraq but who are also put off by anti-war Democrats demanding a speedy withdrawal.

Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, also appeared on Face the Nation.

"We have to reach out and be more bipartisan," she said. "The United States Senate was founded on the principle of accommodation and consensus, and neither of which is evident."

Republicans have blocked Democratic attempts to pass an amendment with a firm troop withdrawal deadline in the Senate. Democrats in turn have refused to consider some Republican or bipartisan proposals that would move away from the president's strategy in Iraq without setting specific dates for troop withdrawals.

For now, Democrats seem to believe that public opinion is on their side against the war and that the longer the debate goes on, the stronger their position will be during next year's presidential and congressional elections.

"Part of this is the Democratic desire to force Republicans up for re-election in 2008 to be on the record as many times as they can so the Democrats can put together video clips of Senator Smith or Senator Sununu or whomever are supporting this war that two-thirds of the American people do not," said Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

Enough Republicans are sticking with the president now to block Democratic congressional attempts to enact a troop withdrawal timetable.

But some political experts argue that as the two sides get closer to the 2008 election year, Republicans could become more vulnerable on the Iraq issue.

"The Republicans are acutely aware of what happened in 2006 and they do not want to see a repeat of it in 2008," said John McIntyre, who edits the politics website RealClearPolitics.com. "And for better or worse, the public has tired of the war in Iraq and I think what most Republicans are feeling, whether they say it publicly or not, is that the situation just is not going to improve quick enough."

The next major stage in the Iraq debate is expected in September when the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and the top U.S. commander there provide Congress with an assessment of how the military's surge strategy is working in Iraq.

"But come September, I think, even Republicans have made up their minds that that is going to be the opportunity to send a more aggressive message to the president that the policy has to change, even if they have to change the policy," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter in Washington.

Iraq has also become the central issue in the early stage of the 2008 presidential campaign, especially among the eight Democrats seeking their party's nomination next year.

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