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Iraq Continues to Dominate US Politics

Three years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq continues to dominate American politics like no other issue. Recent public opinion polls suggest Americans are losing patience with the Iraq effort, complicating President Bush's attempts to shore up domestic support.

U.S.-led coalition forces sped to a relatively quick victory in Iraq over the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But achieving a stable peace in the country has proved to be much more elusive.

Over the past year, continuing U.S. casualties coupled with daily images of violence and chaos have driven down domestic support for the war effort in general and for President Bush's handling of Iraq in particular.

"I think that is because most Americans are anxious when we have our troops in harm's way and they want to know what the president's intentions are and they also want to believe that those intentions are being carried out effectively and they have their doubts on the latter score today," said Karlyn Bowman, who monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Those doubts appear to extend to some troops on the ground in Iraq.

Pollster John Zogby recently surveyed nearly 1,000 U.S. troops.

"One of the key findings, of course, was how long should the U.S. military stay in Iraq and 72 percent said that they should leave within the next 12 months," he said. "Only 23 percent said that they should stay the course and finish the job."

After narrowly winning re-election in 2004, President Bush has had a difficult time retaining public support, in part because of high fuel prices at home and the much criticized government response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

But political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says public worries over Iraq remain at the heart of the president's political problems.

"Fundamentally, it has undermined George Bush's credibility, raised questions about his leadership, and I think has been the single greatest factor contributing to his political problems at home," he said.

Several recent public opinion polls indicate a majority of the public now opposes the war, does not believe the effort was worth the cost and fears Iraq may be headed for civil war.

"They now question why we went in there, believe we should not have gone in there," said analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "The entire rationale in terms of weapons of mass destruction has been undercut. And simply the way the war has gone has raised questions about the administration policy and their management of the war."

President Bush is well aware of the public doubts about Iraq. He has launched a new series of speeches around the country in hopes of boosting domestic support.

"We are fixing what has not worked," the president said. "We will continue to make changes as necessary to complete the mission, to meet the objective, and that is a country which can sustain itself, defend itself, protect itself and serve as a strong ally in the war on terror."

The president's Republican supporters hope the situation in Iraq will settle down before the upcoming congressional elections in November.

Democrats expect to pick up seats in the elections at least in part because of public dissatisfaction over the Iraq effort.

But as a party, Democrats remain divided over Iraq, with a vocal minority demanding a speedy pullout.

Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha supported the war at first. Now he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq.

"The public has been way ahead of the administration, way ahead of Congress," he said. "They want this thing resolved. They want a change in direction."

But the polls suggest many Americans do not believe that Democrats would handle Iraq much differently.

"There are many different voices within the Democratic Party, some arguing very strongly for an immediate withdrawal, some saying that we have to stay the course and the Democrats are not speaking with a clear voice about Iraq right now," said polling expert Karlyn Bowman.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg says it is not clear if the Democratic divisions over Iraq will hurt their election prospects in November.

"Now, at some point, will the voters demand some detailed proposal on Iraq and the war against terror, much like they might demand something on health care or another domestic issue like education? Maybe, but not at the moment," he said.

Politicians from both parties now see the upcoming midterm elections as a likely referendum on President Bush's handling of Iraq.