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On One Year Anniversary, Iraq War Remains Major US Political Issue - 2004-03-17


One year after the war with Iraq, the conflict and its aftermath continue to be a major political issue in the United States. From Washington, National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on how the Iraq war could affect this year's presidential election.

As he campaigns for re-election around the country, President Bush reminds voters that he believes the military operation to topple Saddam Hussein was an essential part of the war on terrorism.

"So we had a choice to make," said Mr. Bush. "I had a choice to make. Either to take the word of a madman, or take action to defend our country. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time."

Senator John Kerry, the president's presumptive Democratic opponent in the November election, criticized the administration for rushing to war, and for not working more closely with U.S. allies abroad.

"All of us support our troops," said Mr. Kerry. "But if we had built a true coalition, those troops would not have to fight almost alone, and Americans would not have to bear, almost alone, all of the costs in Iraq."

But as supporters and critics of the war mark the first anniversary of the start of hostilities in Iraq, there seems to be little shift in the American public's view of the war.

Most polls suggest public support for the war has remained fairly constant at about 60 percent.

It is also clear from the data that Americans believe that the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism and that we are safer, said Karlyn Bowman, who monitors public opinion on Iraq and other issues for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"What is not clear from the polls today is whether Americans think Bush has a clear plan for handling the situation, or whether people buy the president's arguments that building a functioning democracy in Iraq will lessen the threat of terror. All recent polls show that Americans believe we did the right thing in going to war. Opinion is more closely divided about whether or not the war was worth it."

Political analysts say there is little doubt the Iraq war had a major impact on the race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, especially in the early stages.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's early opposition to the war made him the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2003. The issue set him apart from most of the other Democrats, including Senator Kerry, who supported a congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force against the Saddam Hussein regime.

But as the Democratic primaries got underway in January of this year, Howard Dean began to slip, and many Democrats began to shift their support to Senator Kerry.

"So right now, Iraq does not loom as the largest issue. And the Democrats have nominated a candidate that they believe can match President Bush in international affairs, on foreign policy, and can talk credibly about terrorism and Iraq. That is why Democrats chose John Kerry. But they do not want to make the central issue in this campaign Iraq. They want to talk about the economy," said William Schneider, a senior political analyst for the Cable News Network who spoke to VOA at a recent conference in Washington.

Iraq may have slipped somewhat as a major issue in the presidential campaign at the moment. But Washington political analyst Norman Ornstein cautions that the war and its aftermath could easily resurface as an issue in the November election.

"The thing about Iraq is, with 130,000 American troops there, with the commitment we have made, with lots of people, including very disgruntled members of the [armed forces] reserve and the National Guard coming back, and with these troop rotations followed by the changeover in power [in Iraq], things could happen on the ground in Iraq that simply force it into public consciousness and make it the Number One issue," he said. "If people can avoid it, they would prefer to focus on things close to home. They may not be able to avoid it."

Many political analysts believe President Bush will have an advantage in the election, if national security issues become paramount. By the same token, Senator Kerry could gain the upper hand, if the election is decided largely on domestic issues, such as the economy and health care.

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