Over the past two weeks, lawmakers have engaged in one of the most significant periods of debate on Iraq since U.S. and coalition forces ousted former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in early 2003. The debate in Washington and on a national scale, involves a constellation of voices and faces, encompassing members of Congress, President Bush and senior administration officials, and families of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
From a two-day debate in the House of Representatives to important votes in the Senate, Iraq remained the focus of attention for a Congress that, if current polls are any forecast, faces a good prospect of undergoing a major political shift in legislative elections in November.
A collection of voices is contributing to the Iraq debate, seeking to sway public opinion. Outside the U.S. Capitol, one of those belongs to Al Zappala, whose son Sherwood, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman, was killed in Iraq two years ago.
"Bring the troops home now," said Al Zappala. "Take care of them when they get here. And never, ever again send them to a war based on lies."
As Zappala stood holding army boots symbolizing the 2,500 American soldiers killed in Iraq, Republicans and Democrats engaged in rhetorical battles over Iraq policy.
Any timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal, Republicans controlling the House and Senate insist, would simply give encouragement to insurgents and terrorists in Iraq.
Senator John McCain rejects the case made by proponents of a withdrawal timetable that the U.S. military presence is responsible for ongoing conflict.
"We must stay in Iraq until the government there is fully functioning [with] security forces that can keep the insurgents at bay and ultimately defeat them," he said.
Opposition to establishing any formal plan for withdrawal from Iraq was not limited to Republicans.
While deriding what she calls the Bush administration's failed status quo approach, Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton warns against any precipitous U.S. pullout.
"I simply do not believe it is a strategy or a solution for the president to continue declaring an open-ended and unconditional commitment, nor do I believe it is a solution or a strategy to set a date certain for withdrawal without regard to the consequences," she said.
As opposing sides argue about the correct course in Iraq, two Republicans injected an interesting twist.
Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Pete Hoekstra, released what they said is new evidence that U.S. and coalition forces had found weapons of mass destruction, the main reason cited by President Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq.
"The idea that, as my colleagues have repeatedly said in this debate on the other side of the aisle, that there are no weapons of mass destruction is in fact, false," Santorum said. "We have found over 500 weapons of mass destruction, and in fact have found that there are additional chemical weapons still in the country that need to be recovered."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a Thursday news conference that the 500 chemical-filled shells did constitute weapons of mass destruction.
"They are weapons of mass destruction, they are harmful to human beings," he said. "And they have been found and they had not been reported by Saddam Hussein as he inaccurately alleged that he had reported all of his weapons, and they are still being found and discovered."
However, critics noted that the munitions involved were degraded shells dating from before the first Gulf war, and in any case were not the type of weapons of mass destruction Americans were told justified the use of military force in Iraq.
Outside the Capitol, Stacy Bannerman, a member of the Military Families Speak Out group, spoke to reporters.
"The information that has been provided to justify an unnecessary war of choice has repeatedly been proven false," she said. "We need to end the war and bring our troops home now."
As statements by Democrat and Republican leaders underscored, the week's events highlighted the extent to which the political stakes regarding Iraq have risen even further.
House (Republican) Majority Leader John Boehner spoke during that chamber's two day debate.
"If we had adopted the irrational policies of those who lack commitment to winning this fight, the terrorist al-Zarqawi would still be alive and plotting attacks against Iraqis and Americans," he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi repeated Democrat assertions that Republicans have pursued a failed strategy in Iraq.
"The American people are now saying that it was wrong to go into the war in Iraq," she said. "So their credibility is on the line. It is like them to try to turn the table, but Democrats will not be intimidated by them."
During a visit to Hungary, President Bush reiterated his intention to continue supporting Iraq's government.
"Our commitment is certain," he said. "Our objective is clear. The new Iraqi government will show the world the promise of a thriving democracy in the heart of the Middle East."
Iraq is certain to be a major factor in the debate that promises to intensify on the way to November mid-term elections that will determine control of Congress, with after-effects impacting the 2008 presidential race.