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Iraq, Terrorism Dominate US Election Campaign

Less than six weeks before U.S. congressional elections in November, Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a furious debate over which party would do a better job in Iraq and in protecting the country from terrorism.

In the latest twist in the election-year debate, opposition Democrats seized on a report prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies on the war on terror.

The report, known as the National Intelligence Estimate, said the Iraq war has become a rallying cause for jihadists and has bred deep resentment of the United States in the Muslim world.

Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, has been a leading critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq.

"According to these reports, it is our intelligence agencies that confirm what the administration has long denied, that the Iraq war itself is fueling the spread of terrorism in this world," he said.

But the intelligence report also said that promoting democracy in the region could help undermine extremists. And White House officials said the report bolstered President Bush's view that victory in Iraq would deal a demoralizing blow to the jihadists.

"This government is going to do whatever it takes to protect this homeland," the president said. "We are not going to let their excuses stop us from staying on the offense. The best way to protect America is to defeat these killers overseas so we do not have to face them here at home."

The intense debate over Iraq and terrorism has also been fueled by former President Bill Clinton. In a recent interview on Fox television, Mr. Clinton criticized Bush administration efforts and offered a combative defense of his efforts to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

"But at least I tried. That is the difference between me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now," the former president noted. "I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since. And if I were still president, we would have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him. But you know we do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq."

Clinton said the Bush administration did little to go after al-Qaida in the months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Clinton's claim was flatly false and that the Bush White House had been at least as aggressive as the Clinton administration in seeking out bin Laden.

Recent public opinion polls suggest Republicans may be benefiting from a renewed focus on national security in the election campaign, following a series of speeches by President Bush.

Mindful that public support for the Iraq war has eroded domestically, the president and Vice President Dick Cheney are trying to convince Americans that Iraq is the central front in the overall war on terrorism.

"For the sake of our security, this nation must reject any strategy of resignation and defeatism in the face of determined enemies," the vice president said.

Political analysts say it is no surprise that Republicans are trying to refocus public attention on terrorism and national security.

Norman Ornstein, an expert on politics at the American Enterprise Institute, says Republicans are trying to duplicate the success they had with the issue in the 2004 presidential election and the 2002 congressional elections.

"For the third time in a row, it is pretty clear that Republicans are going to use the national security, homeland security issue as their hole [strong] card," he said. "It is the best one they have got. It may be the only one they have got. But it is also one in which you can overplay that hand."

But some analysts also note that Democrats are trying to be more aggressive this year in rebutting Republicans on national security.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post newspaper and an expert on government and politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"So I think the end result is that after three weeks in which President Bush largely controlled the agenda, it shifted the other way toward the Democrats, toward [the issue of] Iraq in particular, and questions about the president's handling of terror." he said. "And so, for the time being, it is a shift in the Democratic direction.

The campaign debate has intensified largely because the political stakes in this year's election are significant. A gain of 15 seats would give Democrats control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994.

Democrats need to gain six seats to retake control of the Senate.