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Analysis: Iraq Report May Shift Climate

By CHARLES BABINGTON
The Associated Press
Monday, August 20, 2007; 9:12 PM

WASHINGTON -- Democrats are warily anticipating a September report on the Iraq war, realizing that opponents will use any upbeat assessment to portray them as defeatists just as glimmers of hope appear.

While many of their party colleagues find the notion fanciful, they acknowledge that top Republicans hope the report will show just enough progress in Iraq to persuade millions of Americans to be patient about troop withdrawals and less critical of how the war is being run.

Democratic candidates for president and Congress, the GOP argument goes, would then be stuck with their Iraq-is-lost stance, appearing irresolute and beholden to liberal activists just as things are looking better.

Many Democratic strategists consider it highly unlikely that a Bush administration report could convince voters the war is improving in a meaningful way. Polling data suggest most Americans are unlikely to change their views about the war based on a new report from the administration.

Still, some Democrats worry that credible reports of even slight improvements in the military situation in Iraq could hurt their party's momentum, built largely on public disenchantment with President Bush and his handling of the war. The administration is writing the September update while consulting with Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker. Both men will testify before Congress.

In late July, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said an upbeat assessment from Petraeus would carry significant weight with his party's most conservative members. They would "want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us," Clyburn told The Washington Post.

Republicans pounced on the remark, claiming Democrats see any progress in Iraq as a political setback. They also trumpeted a July 30 op-ed article in the New York Times by two Brookings Institution military scholars just back from Iraq.

"We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," wrote Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. "We were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily 'victory' but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with."

Some Democratic lawmakers have drawn similar conclusions, putting new strains on party solidarity. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., recently returned from Iraq and said he no longer supports a hard deadline for troop withdrawals.

"I have come to believe that calls for premature withdrawal may make it more difficult for Iraqis to solve their problems," Baird told The Columbian newspaper. The Democratic Party leadership "may be in a different place than I am right now," he said.

Bush's allies hope more good news will come from next month's administration report to Congress, even though no one expects a thoroughly optimistic assessment. U.S. military leaders have said some Iraqi regions _ such as the area around Mosul in the north and Al Anbar province in the west _ may be stable enough to let U.S. troops redeploy elsewhere.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, responding in writing to a reporter's question, said: "Democratic leaders made a political calculation in January and it is proving to be dead wrong."

"Ignoring American successes in favor of advocating failure is not leadership," he said.

With few exceptions, top national Democrats have called the war a mistake. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in April he believed that "this war is lost and that the surge is not accomplishing anything." Reid was referring to the roughly 30,000 troops and support personnel sent to Iraq this spring.

Of the party's major presidential contenders, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has opposed the war from the start; former Sen. John Edwards has apologized for his 2002 vote to authorize the war; and Sen. Hillary R. Clinton says Americans want "a leader who will end the war in Iraq."

Yet all three have cautioned against a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops that could lead to greater sectarian violence in Iraq.

Several conservative commentators, anticipating the September report, say Democrats have climbed out too far on a dangerous limb. "Democrats, who have been pandering to their anti-war base, will increasingly see that they have... 'a problem,'" William Kristol wrote this month in the Weekly Standard, alluding to Clyburn's remarks.

Not true, says Steve Elmendorf, a former Democratic congressional aide who now lobbies in Washington. "At the end of the day," he said in an interview, "the report gets filtered through the White House and Bush apparatus, and they don't have any credibility," he said.

A recent CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll found Americans almost evenly split when asked if the U.S. military is making progress in ending violence in Iraq. But by 53 percent to 43 percent, most said they do not trust the top U.S. commander there, Petraeus, to report what is truly happening when he briefs the president and Congress.

Moreover, 72 percent of all respondents said a positive report would not affect their view of the war, while 28 percent said it would make them likelier to support it. Most polls show six in 10 Americans still oppose Bush's handling of the war, think the war is going badly and favor cutting troop strength in Iraq.

Among them is Carol Cross, a political independent who lives in West Fargo, N.D. The war "seems like it's spinning its wheels, it's going nowhere," she said in a phone interview after answering poll questions.

An upbeat report from Petraeus and the administration would not change her mind, said Cross, who is retired. "I think it's time for them to come home," she said, "no matter what."

© 2007 The Associated Press