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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 21:56 GMT
Iraq jitters fuel war of words
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

In recent weeks a war of words in Washington has turned ugly, with Republicans and Democrats at each others' throats over Iraq.

Anti-war demonstrators in California
Flagging support for the president has emboldened opponents

Not only is there a fierce debate over how the US got into the conflict - there is an equally rancorous argument about how it gets out.

Both sides have become engaged in the kind of systematic campaign to discredit opponents and promote their own positions more often seen at election time.

President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have launched sharp attacks on the Democrats claiming their criticism of the war effort is irresponsible and accusing them of changing their minds on Iraq.

Pushing back against the push-back, the Democrats say the administration continues to mislead America about how it got into Iraq and what must be done to finish the mission.

The angry rhetoric is being fuelled by falling public support for the president's stay-the-course strategy in Iraq - a fact deeply worrying for the White House and an opportunity for the opposition.

'Liars and traitors'

Thomas Mann, a leading academic and seasoned observer of Capitol Hill politics, told the BBC: "Democrats have gone on the offensive because of the substantial decline in public support for the war and in the president's handling of it.

The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory or their backbone
Dick Cheney

"They realise it is the one issue that could return them to the majority in Congress in 2006.

"The Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress are hitting back hard because they see the same decline and know they must reverse it."

Stephen Hess is another renowned Washington scholar who has served on the White House staffs of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, and advised Presidents Ford and Carter.

I like guys who got five deferments and (have) never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done
John Murtha

He says the current level of argument has reached a "miserable point".

"One side says 'you are liars', the other says 'you are traitors' - it doesn't move the debate very far," he told the BBC.

"We are in this situation largely because the debate is responding to 'Main Street'. The public is showing declining support for the president and particularly on Iraq - and that has emboldened opponents of the war.

"At the same time that has warned the administration that they could be approaching some kind of tipping point - and they had better re-energise their people."

'Dishonest on Iraq'

And that is just what the White House is trying to do.

Vice President Dick Cheney
The administration has hit back hard at critics

In e-mails under the heading "Setting the record straight", it has sought to rebut media reports, and undermine Democratic critics.

It has highlighted statements made by opponents before the war, which it suggests contradicts their positions today.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin, target of one such comparison, has hit back in kind, producing a list of statements on intelligence made by administration officials before the war, contrasted with what the intelligence community believed to be true at the time.

For its part, the Republican National Committee's website links to a new 60-second advertisement "Democrats: Dishonest on Iraq", which features leading Democrats speaking in favour of war, or on the threat of Saddam Hussein.

In a further sign of the bitter personal nature of the debate, Democratic Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam vet who voted in favour of the war, took a swipe at the vice-president.

'Business not rhetoric'

As he appealed for an immediate withdrawal of US troops, he also hit out at Mr Cheney for avoiding service in Vietnam through five deferments.

A response was swift, however. The White House press secretary Scott McClellan said it was "baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.

"The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists. After seeing [Mr Murtha's] statement, we remain baffled - nowhere does he explain how retreating from Iraq makes America safer."

While the White House has pledged to maintain an aggressive stance on the issue, the coming holiday season, where Congress goes out of session for a couple of weeks is likely to cool the debate, at least in the short term.

But as Stephen Hess says: "On December 15 you have elections in Iraq. That is not rhetoric, that is real business. And we will have to wait and see how the parties respond to what occurs."

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