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Four years later, Iraq has changed politics

Monday, March 19, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Four years into the Iraq war, about the only thing that has not changed is President Bush's insistence the fight can be won.

With more than 3,200 U.S. troops dead and still no clear way out, the political landscape could not be more different.

Public support for the war has fallen to its lowest levels. Republicans have lost control of Congress, at least in part because of voters' angst over the conflict. Even the president has acknowledged the tactical approach to the war must change.

The debate on whether to launch a pre-emptive attack against a nation has given way to this question: How soon should U.S. troops leave?

"The war that we the Congress authorized the president to engage in is different than the one we're in today," acknowledged GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, an ardent Bush supporter whose seat Democrats are targeting in the 2008 elections.

With sectarian attacks on the rise in Iraq, "I think we have to have a very serious appraisal of how you conduct yourself in that type of situation," Young said.

Soul searching

Young is not alone in questioning whether the United States is on the right track. Bush's critics and supporters alike say the four years of violence and the death toll has led to soul-searching over how far Congress should go to intervene in a war that has gone badly.

White House officials and many legal experts contend the Constitution gives the president supreme authority on foreign policy matters and control of the armed forces, whereas Congress' clearest option is to cut off money.

Democrats, reluctant to restrict that money for fear of being accused of abandoning the troops, are considering laws that would set a deadline for the war.

If these bills pass, Bush is expected to veto the legislation or ignore it.

But how much longer the president can hold out is uncertain. His Jan. 10 announcement that he planned to send in 21,500 more combat troops found support among most Republicans. Yet even they say the clock is ticking.

"If this current strategy doesn't work, the options aren't good," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. If the violence continues, "you're going to see more and more people suggest we've got to do something different."

Such skepticism was rare in 2003 when the bombing began. Members of Congress lined up in support of the U.S.-led invasion; many were Democrats who did not want to appear reluctant to prevent another potential Sept. 11 attack.

Shifting sentiment

Among those who voted in favor of the war are some of Bush's chief critics, including Democratic presidential contenders John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Since then, public sentiment toward the war has changed dramatically. Almost three-fourths of people in the U.S. supported the war when it began in March 2003. Last month, AP-Ipsos polling found that not quite four in 10 people surveyed agreed with the decision to go to war and six in 10 opposed -- the same levels of support found by a recent Gallup poll.

The inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq did not help in maintaining support for the war. The claim that Saddam Hussein possessed such weapons was a main justification the administration used for the war.

Public acceptance of the war eroded as American casualties mounted and U.S. troops, initially focused on Sunni insurgents, instead had to grapple with Sunni-Shiite violence. This past week, the Pentagon said the violence was taking on aspects of a civil war.

Military officials agree that the task of easing that bloodshed is best accomplished by Iraqi security forces, once they become capable.

Other blows to the once-popular war effort were revelations of American forces abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the slaying of Iraqi civilians at Haditha. Most recently there have been reports of substandard care of wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

One political marker was last October when Virginia Sen. John Warner declared the war was "drifting sideways." A prominent Republican on military issues, Warner stood beside Bush in 2002 as the president signed into law the congressional authorization for the war.

But four years later, upon returning from a trip to Iraq, Warner said he had lost confidence that the Iraqi government was making progress and worried that sectarian violence had consumed Baghdad.

After the elections, Warner proposed a congressional resolution stating opposition to the president's plan to augment force levels. The resolution drowned amid partisan bickering and was never voted on, but it attracted enough Republican support to worry the White House that it was losing its support base.

In another sign of the changing times, news of al-Qaida member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confession that he masterminded Sept. 11 and plotted some 30 other attacks quickly gave way to another development. House Democrats won their first vote on a war spending bill that would demand the president pull troops out of Iraq before September 2008.

As that confrontation looms in the full House, Bush's supporters say they will continue to review their options to bring troops home.

Young says regardless of everything that has happened, he is not thinking of abandoning his president. But when asked if the war is winnable, Young's response was more one of optimism than anything else.

"It has to be" winnable, he said. "We can't let terrorists continue to threaten the United States."


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