Republican presidential hopefuls are actively angling to turn Iraq — an unpopular war that sent George W. Bush's approval ratings to record lows — into a winning issue for their party in 2016. And there's reason to believe it just might work.

While the Iraq war continues to be unpopular, lukewarm or negative ratings for Obama's handling of a variety of international issues has helped Republicans regain the advantage they lost to Democrats during the 2000s.

Buttressing Republican rhetoric, the party's overall image on foreign policy has recovered. A February Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent of Americans saying Republicans can do a better job making "wise decisions about foreign policy," compared with 35 percent who preferred Democrats. That 13 percentage point Republican edge is similar to the party's 10-point edge in the months before the Iraq invasion in 2003, after which Democrats gained a slight advantage.

Republicans' advantage in dealing with the Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria was similar in an October Washington Post-ABC News poll, where GOPers were trusted by 42 to 28 percent over Democrats.

Republicans' comeback on foreign policy has developed even as most Americans have supported Obama's major policies in the region. Washington Post-ABC News polls found nearly 8 in 10 supported Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 — under a 2008 agreement signed by President George W. Bush — while 7 in 10 supported U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State insurgents last fall.

But the results of Obama's policies have not been seen positively, with a majority saying the U.S. is less important and powerful in the world and saying Obama is "not tough enough" in his approach to foreign policy, according to Pew surveys.

The strong prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic nominee may also help Republicans' argument, with her role as secretary of state allowing for a clear connection to Obama's record on foreign affairs. In addition, Clinton may have difficulty casting blame for Iraq's current troubles on Republicans since she voted to give Bush the power to use military force against the country in 2002. (She has called that vote a "mistake.")

Whatever the potential political benefit for Republicans focusing on Iraq's troubles, it also poses particular challenges for candidates unwilling to criticize George W. Bush's for launching the war in 2003. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have struggled to explain whether they would have made the same decision, a question which will likely be revisited during upcoming debates over what action they would take in Iraq going forward.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.