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Iraq Looms as Key US Domestic Issue in 2006

2006 is a congressional election year in the United States and the situation in Iraq figures to be a major issue in the November voting.

Much as it did during 2005, Iraq could dominate the domestic political scene during 2006.

Public opinion polls traced a steady decline in President Bush's popularity for much of 2005 and political analysts say bad news from Iraq had a lot to do with it.

Toward the end of the year, the president boosted his approval ratings a bit after a series of speeches in which he defended his policy on Iraq.

Many Americans hope that progress toward democracy in Iraq this year will lead to significant troop withdrawals in the months ahead.

President Bush says there is reason to be somewhat optimistic on Iraq and that some U.S. troops will begin pulling out soon. But he also says he will not give in to political pressure from some opposition Democrats to speed up the troop withdrawals.

"But my decisions will be based upon conditions on the ground and the recommendation of our commanders, not based on false political timetables in Washington D.C.," Mr. Bush said. "I am not going to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing in Iraq and the American people have got to understand that."

Democrats hope to make gains in the November elections when the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate will be at stake. The political fortunes of the Democrats will depend in part on what the public mood is at the time toward the situation in Iraq.

In the meantime, there is no united Democratic position on Iraq apart from calls from many opposition lawmakers for the Bush administration to be more specific on how and when U.S. troops will leave the country.

"Unfortunately, that end remains unclear," said Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island. "The president still has not stated how long his administration believes the process will take and how much it will cost in terms of funding and in terms of the commitment of American military and civilian personnel."

President Bush faces a range of other domestic and foreign policy challenges in the months ahead including the general political situation in the Middle East, recovery efforts at home in the wake of last year's devastating Hurricane Katrina and the Senate battle over Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

In addition, the administration will be defending its efforts in the war on terrorism in congressional hearings that will consider the president's controversial decision to authorize an expansion of domestic spying without the permission of a special surveillance court.

But the president may also be battling history during 2006. Second terms have been notoriously difficult for modern presidents and often offer opportunities for the opposition party.

Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and is a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

"This is almost always a troublesome midterm for two-term presidents," he said. "The sixth year of a presidency usually results in a substantial number of seats going to the opposition party. It is hard to say how many, and hard to say whether it will be enough for Democrats to take over one or both houses of Congress."

Professor Sabato and other analysts believe Iraq could drive public opinion again in 2006. But they also see a continuation of the ambivalence with the public over what to do about Iraq.

While a majority of Americans now believe the Iraq invasion was a mistake, most surveys show a majority continues to oppose a speedy withdrawal before Iraq achieves some measure of democracy.

Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg appeared on VOA's Talk to America program.

"I really do believe that the American public cares more about results and in a sense, we are in the middle of this issue still right now," he said. "We will not know how the public views it six months from now or six months from the time we start making significant troop withdrawals."

Another major political issue this year could be the congressional corruption scandal involving one time high-powered Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff has already admitted trying to buy influence with some lawmakers and is cooperating in a massive federal investigation into whether some members of Congress broke the law by accepting gifts and campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients.