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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 21:42 GMT 22:42 UK
Iraq splits US Congress as polls loom
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

US marines evacuating a wounded soldier
Any pullout of US troops is a contentious issue in Washington
They have certainly been full of sound and fury, but what has been the significance of the debates about Iraq in the US Senate and the House of Representatives?

Just days after the House voted not to set a timetable for US troop withdrawal, senators have rejected two separate calls by Democrats for the same thing.

One - proposed by the defeated 2004 presidential candidate, John Kerry - called for a deadline of next July for US forces to withdraw.

The other proposal simply called for a "phased withdrawal", without any specific end date.

Mischievous Republicans have labelled the proposals "cut and run" and "cut and jog".

Election warning

Even if the rhetoric - and the votes - are no surprise, that does not undermine their significance, in electoral terms at least.

The entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate is up for re-election in November.

John Kerry
Democrat John Kerry has called for a deadline for withdrawal
And although Iraq will probably play a less significant role than it would in a presidential poll, it is sure to figure highly on voters' lists of concerns.

The Democrats, who have been enlisting Iraq war veterans as candidates, with varying degrees of success, are generally happy about that.

They have been hoping to capitalise on public dissatisfaction with the president's handling of the war.

But the recent death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of the new Iraqi government have instilled a new sense of optimism in the Republicans.

Last week their leading election strategist, White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, celebrating the news that he would not be indicted in the ongoing CIA leak investigation, gave a speech in New Hampshire.

In it he urged Republicans to paint Democrats as being weak on national security.

Karl Rove's message was that when the going gets tough, the Democrats want US soldiers to get going
He singled out war veterans, such as John Kerry and John Murtha, who have been the most vocal in calling for troop withdrawal.

His message was that when the going gets tough, the Democrats want US soldiers to get going.

And, sure enough, just days later, House Republicans called for a debate about the troop issue.

Democrats split

Not for the first time, the Republicans have been helped in their endeavours by the Democrats, whose splits over Iraq have been exposed yet again during the congressional debates.

Not only did they fail to speak with a unified voice in the Senate, but, when the House voted last week, 42 Democrats sided with the Republicans. Only three Republicans voted the other way.

But it is too early to jump to conclusions about how Iraq will play out in November's elections or, indeed, whether the Republican appeal to patriotism will have the weight it has had in the past.

For a start, the gathering storm of allegations about the conduct of marines in Iraq could, potentially, have a profound effect on US public opinion.

And of course any electoral strategy which emphasises Iraq is hostage to events on the ground.




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