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Iraq Report Likely to Complicate Domestic Political Debate


The long simmering domestic political debate over the war in Iraq is likely to become further complicated in the wake of congressional testimony this week from the Bush administration's top two officials in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. military commander General David Petraeus. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker presented lawmakers with a mixed picture of progress in Iraq.

Petraeus argued the military surge strategy is working and that Iraqis are now in a position to benefit from improved security. "Military aspects of the surge have achieved progress and generated momentum. Iraqi security forces have slowly been shouldering more of the security burden," he said.

But on the Iraqi political front, the picture is far more uncertain and, in some cases, pessimistic.

Ambassador Crocker acknowledged the lack of political reconciliation. But he also urged U.S. lawmakers to give Iraqi leaders more time. "The process will not be quick. It will be uneven, punctuated by setbacks as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment," he said.

Many, but not all, Republicans took heart from the positive assessment on the surge strategy, especially those who stood by the policy even as public support for the war eroded over the past two years.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is running for president, spoke on CBS television's The Early Show. "There is no doubt in my mind that the alternative to this strategy is catastrophe and genocide," he said.

Other Republicans are more wary. "Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we are doing now? For what? The president said, let us buy time. Buy time? For what?," said Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Democrats remain skeptical that Iraqi political leaders are serious about reconciliation, even with the improvement in security. "This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake and we are now confronted with the question, how do we clean up the mess and make the best out of a situation in which there are no good options. There are bad options and worse options," said Illinois Senator and presidential contender Barack Obama.

Recent public opinion polls indicate there is little change in the generally gloomy public mood about Iraq, even with the security gains brought about by the surge.

The latest surveys found most Americans still believe the Iraq invasion was a mistake and up to 60 percent of those polled favor setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Still, the improving security picture may keep congressional Republicans from deserting the president on Iraq.

"The sliding seems to have stopped or slowed. So, in that sense, I think they have bought time. They do not have to worry as soon about the dangers of major Republican defections," said professor John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University.

He also believes that it is unlikely that there will be any major shift in public opinion on the war anytime soon. "Over half the population seems to be clearly opposed to the war. And those opposed to the war, about 90 percent of them tend to be strongly opposed to the war. So the fact that there may be some improvement in some areas is not terribly relevant from their standpoint. It has already cost too much," he said.

The mixed report on Iraq could also sharpen political divisions among Democrats.

Anti war liberals are frustrated that Democratic congressional leaders have not done more to try and cut off funding for the war. That split could worsen if moderate Democrats decide to be less confrontational over Iraq given the improving security situation there.

"They alienated a large number of Democratic voters who want to pull the troops out immediately. That caused deterioration in their poll numbers. I think it is a short-term phenomenon, but it is a significant development worth noting," said independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Political experts say it will be difficult now for the Democrats to either cut funding for the Iraq war or force Congress to set a troop withdrawal timetable.

But analysts also expect that the political debate on Iraq will gradually shift away from Congress and into the 2008 presidential campaign where, for the moment, Democrats appear to have an edge in the polls.