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US House Prepares for Marathon Debate on Iraq Policy

The U.S. House of Representatives is preparing for a major debate Thursday on Iraq, with high political stakes for Republicans as well as Democrats amid a continuing national debate on the war there.

With President Bush enjoying some improvement in his public approval ratings after his surprise visit to Baghdad and the killing of the former al-Qaida leader in Iraq Musab al-Zarqawi, majority Republicans want to keep the focus of the debate on successes rather than mistakes and miscalculations.

"We're going to talk about the long-term war on terrorism and radical Islam. We're going to put this in the context that I think the American people need to understand," said Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who heads the House Intelligence Committee.

"One of the main points of the resolution is that there should not be an arbitrary departure date for American forces," noted Republican Duncan Hunter, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

In addition to rejecting any timetable for withdrawal or redeployment of U.S. troops, a Republican-crafted resolution states that the United States will prevail in the global war on terrorism. It also praises U.S. military forces.

Because of its strong language supporting U.S. troops, only the most ardent anti-war Democrats are likely to vote against the resolution, with some refusing to take part in the debate. "I do not want to participate in anything that would mislead the American people as to what is taking place on the floor," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from the state of Hawaii.

While most Democrats share the view that the Republican-organized debate amounts to a public relations exercise, they do intend to participate to make some key points regarding Iraq.

Ike Skelton, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, accuses Republicans of attempting to avoid what he and other Democrats say should be a free and honest debate. "The resolution confuses the war in Iraq and the war on terror. It does not give the American people the real debate that we were promised about our policy in Iraq and how we should move forward," he said.

For members of both main political parties, the stakes are high with control of Congress in the balance in this November's mid-term legislative election.

Republicans hope the recent good news from Iraq will lead to a lasting upward trend in their own prospects and for President Bush, whose approval ratings still hover in the 30 percent range.

Democrats, meanwhile, want to be seen as supportive of U.S. troops, nearly 2,500 of whom have died in Iraq, while laying out an alternative plan.

And some Democrats worry about potential political damage from visible divisions on Iraq, such as senator and potential 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's opposition to any withdrawal timetable, and unsuccessful presidential contender John Kerry's position. "I believe we need a hard and fast deadline, not an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, so that we shift responsibility and demand responsibility from Iraqis themselves," Kerry said.

In a news conference, President Bush recognized the politics involved in the debate. "Admittedly there are a group of people in our country that say it wasn't worth it, get out now. And that opinion is being expressed, as these [political] campaigns start approaching, you will hear more people say, I suspect, it was a mistake, Bush shouldn't have done what he did. Pull out. And that is a legitimate debate to have in America, and I look forward to that debate," he said.

The debate in the House [of Representatives] is likely to last all day Thursday. Iraq may also be a key focus in the Senate, which is considering a defense spending authorization bill, and separate emergency legislation providing billions of dollars for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.