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Bush Victory Strategy Intensifies US Political Debate Over Iraq

The domestic political debate over Iraq continues to intensify as President Bush makes a fresh attempt to regain public support for his handling of the war there.

In one sense, the president is fighting a two-front war. One is to defeat the insurgents in Iraq. The other is to bolster public opinion at home where support for the war has dropped dramatically over the past several months. "America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your Commander in Chief," President Bush said.

As the president lays out a strategy for victory in Iraq, he is mindful of the call by some opposition Democrats to set a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. "These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington," he said.

The president's new push to win public support for his victory strategy in Iraq is already being challenged by some opposition Democrats, including Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. "Again, the president failed to answer the questions that all Americans are asking. How do we know if progress is being made there? How do we measure success? How much longer should America expect to be in Iraq?," he said.

Though nervous about polls that show public disenchantment with the president's handling of Iraq, most of Mr. Bush's fellow Republicans remain supportive of the effort.

"The Middle East will be forever changed by the choices we have made and by those we continue to make over the next months. We must get Iraq right," said Arizona Senator John McCain.

This new intensity in the domestic debate over Iraq was fueled in part by a recent proposal from a conservative Democrat, Congressman John Murtha, to immediately begin the process of withdrawing U.S. troops.

Congressman Murtha, a Marine Corps veteran who initially supported the war, says he is not impressed with the president's latest attempt to lay out a victory strategy. "I was disappointed that he did not give any kind of a definite plan, which would have reassured the American public, which they want. They are crying out for reassurance," he said.

Democrats were initially wary of embracing the Murtha withdrawal strategy but that may be changing.

The leader of Democrats in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, now supports the Murtha withdrawal plan and says other Democrats may as well. "Clearly the president fails to understand that a new course is needed in Iraq. The president has dug us into a deep hole in Iraq. It is time for him to stop digging," she said.

On the other side of the Democratic Party divide over Iraq is Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Senator Lieberman remains generally supportive of the president's policy on Iraq but worries that Iraqis might detect weakness in U.S. resolve because of the ongoing domestic political debate.

Back from a recent trip to Iraq, Senator Lieberman was a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program. "The American soldiers there are not, so far, affected by the political differences at home. But the Iraqis were concerned about it. One of them said to me, I hope you are not going to leave us here alone. We are making progress but we need some of you to stay a lot longer to help us realize that progress."

Many analysts say President Bush had little choice but to try to bolster public opinion on Iraq given his low poll ratings and the recent call for withdrawal by Congressman Murtha.

Lawrence Korb is a foreign policy and defense expert at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Washington. "I do not think that the White House wanted to do this before the Iraqi election. But with somebody like (Democratic Congressman John) Jack Murtha coming out and saying that it was a policy wrapped in illusion and that things were getting worse rather than better, he really needed to do this as soon as possible," he said.

As for the Democrats, many of them are engaged in a side debate over whether they should offer a comprehensive alternative to the president's policy on Iraq.

John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State University who has long studied the impact of public opinion during wartime.

He says many Democrats are content to criticize without offering a plan of their own. "They (Democrats) are very discontent, as is the public, about what is going on there and that they are somebody different from the people (President Bush and Republicans) who got us into what many people are seeing as a quagmire or a distinct mess. So, it is not at all clear that they have to have a precise plan," he said.

Some analysts and lawmakers are also predicting that the domestic debate over Iraq will expand to include the question of what exactly constitutes victory in Iraq. "You can draw some general conclusions as to whether Iraq works as a country, as a democracy, as something that is economically and security stable. But I do not think that the definition of victory is ever going to become more precise than that because there will be differences among Americans looking at this," said Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

President Bush and members of Congress have a huge political stake in what happens in Iraq.

For Mr. Bush, Iraq's fate will likely shape his presidential legacy.

House and Senate members face the prospect of a more immediate impact when they go before the voters and seek re-election in next year's congressional midterm elections.