The upsurge in violence in Iraq could have important ramifications for the U.S. presidential election campaign. The new fighting has reignited a debate in Washington over the Bush administration's handling of the situation in Iraq.
The president's presumptive Democratic opponent in the November election, Senator John Kerry, struck a somber tone during a speech in Washington, asking the audience to remember the U.S. soldiers killed in the latest round of violence in Iraq.
"No matter what disagreements over how to approach the policy in Iraq, and we have some, we are all united as a nation in supporting our troops and ultimately in our goal of a stable Iraq," he said.
Those comments were in contrast to remarks made earlier in radio interviews in which Senator Kerry criticized the administration for deciding early on to hand over control to the Iraqis on June 30. Senator Kerry said the administration wants to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible without regard to the country's stability. He also urged the administration to do more to seek international assistance to help rebuild Iraq.
However, opposition Democrats are not unified on what should be done in Iraq.
West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, one of the Democratic Party's senior members of Congress, said he doubted the wisdom of sending more American troops into Iraq, saying the idea had "echoes" of the divisive Vietnam conflict of the 1960s.
"Surely this administration recognizes that in increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will only suck us deeper and deeper and deeper into the maelstrom, into the quicksand, of violence that has become the hallmark of that unfortunate, miserable country," he said.
The Byrd comments came only days after similar remarks from another senior Democrat in the Congress, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. He criticized the president for alienating U.S. allies by invading Iraq. "He [Bush] is the problem, not the solution. Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam and this country needs a new president," he said.
The president's supporters and congressional Republicans are dismissive of the comparisons to Vietnam. They argue that Iraq is a critical battle in the war on terrorism and that establishing democracy in Iraq is crucial to stabilizing the Middle East.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was held captive as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for several years, says the United States has too much at stake in Iraq to abandon the cause.
"Is this a difficult political problem? Yes. Is it the time to panic, to cut and run? Absolutely not," he said.
In fact, while many Democrats are critical of the president's handling of Iraq, most see little alternative to staying as long as needed to ensure a stable and Democratic Iraq.
"It is in our best interests to stay the course, to try and fashion a democracy there to get at the roots of the radical Islam that has spawned the terror that has come home to hit America," said Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, NBC's Today program. "So, we are going to give it our best shot. It is a difficult challenge. This is really as much a test of our perseverance as anything else."
Recent public opinion polls suggest about six in ten Americans still support the mission in Iraq. But the recent upsurge in violence and increase in American casualties have cut into the president's overall job approval rating, down to 43 percent in a new Pew Research Center poll that had him at 55 percent approval last September.
Ivo Daalder worked on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He now monitors foreign policy trends at the Brookings Institution here in Washington.
"George Bush is now the hostage to fortune," he said. "It depends on what is going to happen in the world. Another terrorist attack or a major, major problem visibly on TV in Iraq is going to challenge fundamentally the issue on which the president has staked his re-election."
Public opinion polls have consistently indicated that Iraq, the war on terrorism and the U.S. domestic economy will all be major issues in this year's presidential campaign.