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Iraq Increasingly an Issue in Early Stages of 2004 US Presidential Election - 2003-11-03

President Bush is vowing that the United States will stay the course in Iraq, following Sunday's downing of a U.S. helicopter that killed 16 soldiers and injured 20 others. Meanwhile, some opposition Democrats are urging a change in policy on Iraq amid new indications of public unease with how events are proceeding there.

The president did not specifically mention the helicopter incident. But he told an audience in Alabama that the enemy in Iraq is trying to drive coalition forces out of the country and that, in his words, "America will never run."

"They know that the advance of freedom in Iraq will be a major defeat for the cause of terror," he said. "This collection of killers is trying to shake the will of America. We will not be intimidated."

Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, continue to insist that much of Iraq is relatively peaceful and welcoming of coalition forces. Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, he said, "We know that the overwhelming majority of the population of Iraq favors the coalition and wants them to stay, and appreciates the work and progress that is taking place."

But many Democrats, and even a few Republicans, say they are troubled in the wake of Sunday's helicopter attack. Speaking to CBS television, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "But there does not seem to be this sense of urgency, the failure to tell the folks we have got to lock down this country quickly, build up the Iraqi forces, bring in NATO, bring in other folks and give up some authority. I mean, we act like Iraq is some kind of prize that we won."

The Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, was in general agreement.

Iraq continues to percolate as an issue in the early stages of the 2004 presidential election campaign.

Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt is one of nine Democratic contenders. He supported the war in Iraq but, like the other Democratic candidates, he is critical of President Bush's efforts to reach out for international help to rebuild Iraq. "He still has not gotten the help that we need," he said. "We cannot solve this problem alone. We need the help of lots of other countries including France, Germany, and Russia."

A new public opinion poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found that 51 percent of those surveyed now disapprove of the president's handling of the situation in Iraq, while 47 percent approve. That is a noticeable drop from a few-months ago, and the first time that a majority in that survey has indicated disapproval.

Even supporters of the war to topple Saddam Hussein acknowledge that the continuing American casualties in Iraq could eventually exact a political toll on President Bush.

"This is a very difficult, dangerous environment, which was well worth doing, again, in my own context," he said. "I think the political cost is certainly worth it, but you know these families are getting notified on a daily basis. A planeload of casualties a day is coming out of Iraq.

Sunday's downing of the helicopter resulted in the single deadliest event of the war for U.S. troops, since they launched the invasion of Iraq in March.