Mon, Nov 19, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Iraq progress boosts Republicans

ELECTION BATTLE Signs of success in Iraq makes the Republican candidates' positions less precarious, allowing them to lash the Democrats for being weak on national security


Hints of US military progress in Iraq are shifting the political ground under Democratic White House candidates and boosting the spirits of Republicans who have taken a beating over the unpopular war.

Recent monthly declines in US troop deaths, signs that sectarian violence might be ebbing and claims by the Bush administration of grassroots political progress in Iraq, have lent new angles to the furious war debate.

Upbeat commentary on the war is also complicating life for Democrats in Congress, who have repeatedly failed to fracture US President George W. Bush's firewall of support among Republicans on the war.

Lawmakers who backed Bush's troop surge strategy are jubilant.

"You would have to suspend disbelief to believe that the surge is not working," said Senator Lindsey Graham, in a jab at Democratic frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton, who used such a phrase to reject war commander General David Petraeus' claims of progress in Iraq in September.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, who quit the Democratic party to sit as an independent as a result of the war, proclaimed "thrilling" progress in Iraq.

Democrats "continue to be in deep denial," he claimed, and "emotionally invested in a narrative of retreat and defeat."

After months of failed attempts to force Bush to end the Iraq war, Democrats bluntly reject the emerging administration attempt to show that important progress is being made in Iraq.

A statement from the Senate Democratic leadership on Friday pointed out that this year has been the deadliest for US troops in Iraq, with more than 850 soldiers killed.

They also argued that more Iraqi civilians had died in violence this year than in 2005, and said decreasing violence may simply mean that problem neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed.

In the presidential campaign, it may not matter whether life is any better for long suffering Iraqis -- merely that the situation is such that Republicans can argue things are improving.

"The perception is the reality. If the perception is that things are getting better, it diminishes the advantage of the Democrats," said Joseph Valenzano, professor of communications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In a presidential debate on Thursday, Democratic Senator Barack Obama sought to distinguish between military progress by "magnificent" US troops in Iraq and the paucity of political evolution in Baghdad.

"The overall strategy has failed because we have not seen any change in behavior among Iraq's political leaders," he said.

The idea that Iraqis have squandered the sacrifice of US troops allows Democrats to continue to argue that US troops need to come home -- even if Republicans counter that their presence there is vital to maintaining security.

Up to now, Republican presidential candidates like frontrunner Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney have been forced to defend the surge strategy -- even though backing an unpopular war could be a liability in a general election.

Success in Iraq may make their positions less precarious and lend more credibility to a tried and tested Republican election tactic -- lashing the Democrats as weak on national security.

"Since the 1960s, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be painted as a party that is soft on defense," said Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University, Iowa.

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