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Election Results Drive Demand for Change in Iraq Policy

This month's congressional election results suggest the U.S. public is demanding a change in the U.S. strategy in the war in Iraq. But in the two weeks since the election, it is clear there is no consensus emerging among congressional and Bush administration policy makers about what to do next. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the intensifying post-election debate over Iraq from Washington.

Democrats believe much of their success in the congressional elections was due to public unhappiness about the war in Iraq, so many of them are pressing ahead with calls for troop withdrawals to begin within four to six months.

Even Republicans are showing signs of disenchantment with the Bush administration's approach on Iraq. Among them is Arizona Senator John McCain, a likely presidential contender in 2008.

But unlike many of his colleagues, McCain is pushing to send more U.S. troops into Iraq to help quell the sectarian violence there.

"No, we are not winning in Iraq. That is why we have to have more troops there and we have to do it quickly," McCain said.

Democrats will take control of both houses of Congress in January. But they remain divided on how best to proceed in Iraq.

A few Democrats advocate a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces. But most prefer what they like to call a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces over a period of several months that would put pressure on the Iraqis to solve their political differences and take greater responsibility for their own security.

Among those who favor that approach is Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. He spoke on NBC's Today program.

"The best one [option] is to, in fact, begin to let the Iraqi leadership know that we are not going to be staying," Biden said. "Over the next four months, let them know we are going to start to phase out, force them to have to address the central issue and that is not how to stand up Iraqis, but to get Iraqis to stand together."

Politicians from both parties are talking about change in the U.S. policy toward Iraq, and political analysts say that is because most of them are taking heed of the election results earlier this month.

Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virgina.

"America has a vibrant democracy and the people are still in charge. When they speak clearly and loudly, as they did on November 7, they direct policy," Sabato said. "And so the president and Congress have to adjust to that reality."

How receptive the Bush administration will be in responding to the call for change in Iraq remains an open question.

In a recent Washington speech, Vice President Dick Cheney told a conservative audience that the election results will not deter the administration from completing the mission in Iraq.

"The key is to get Iraqis into the fight, and we will continue training local forces so they can take the lead in defending their own country," Mr. Cheney said. "America is going to complete our mission, we are going to get it done right and then we will bring our troops home with victory."

But the pressure for change in Iraq is not just coming from Democrats and political independents. It is coming from conservatives as well.

Again, political analyst Larry Sabato.

"He [President Bush] has very little choice at this point. Even many conservative Republicans and some neo-cons [neo-conservatives] are deserting the ship and making it clear that the current policy in Iraq is unsustainable," Sabato said.

Politicians from both parties are awaiting recommendations on Iraq from a special bipartisan commission set up by Congress and headed by former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

The Iraq Study Group is expected to release its findings and recommendations next month.

Some members of Congress hope the commission will provide a way forward in Iraq that will appeal to Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration.

But Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline political newsletter, is skeptical that the commission will be able to provide a bipartisan solution that can unify official Washington.

Todd was a guest on VOA's Encounter program.

"My gut [instinct] is that there is not going to be too much agreement on exactly the plan of what to do," Todd said. "Look, if there were an easy plan, somebody would have it, OK? It is not easy."

As Democrats prepare to take over Congress in January, many experts predict a renewed focus on Iraq.

This is author and political scholar Norman Ornstein.

"I think you will get [congressional] hearings that will push toward at least consideration of forward-looking plans and alternatives that we would not have otherwise," Ornstein said. "I think you are going to see a significant focus on foreign policy, but that is not going to result itself in a change in direction."

Another expert, John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute, believes it will be difficult for the president and congressional Democrats to bridge the gap over Iraq.

"Six months down the road, I think there is still a pretty fundamental divide between Republicans and Bush, who want to find a way to win in Iraq and are not looking to reduce troops right away, and Democrats who would like to see those troops come home more soon," Fortier said.

Politics will also play a role in the Iraq debate. Several senators from both parties are either planning or contemplating a run for president in 2008, and many have their own proposals for what should be done in Iraq.