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Eight key questions on future in Iraq

President Bush's Iraq policy appears to be at a crucial turning point, with events there controlling not only his re-election prospects but Republican control of Congress.'s Tom Curry provides a guide to the current landscape
A Marine is silhouetted against the Euphrates River while keeping watch in Saqlawiya, northwest of Fallujah.Adrees Latif / Reuters file

President Bush's Iraq policy appears to be at a crucial turning point, with events there guiding not only his re-election prospects but Republican control of the House and Senate. Here's a guide to the current political landscape:

How close is the United States to achieving the goals President Bush set at the outset of the invasion of Iraq?
The United States has toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and continues to search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons or their components.

An artillery round containing the nerve gas sarin exploded near a U.S. military convoy near Baghdad this week, but it is not yet known how recently the sarin was manufactured. Saddam’s regime declared all such rounds destroyed before the 1991 war.

Given the rise of jihadists and assassinations of Iraqis who are part of the interim government, the goal Bush stated on the eve of war in 2003 — “a representative government that upholds human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy” — seems far in the distance.

A panel of Iraq experts who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday gave a somber assessment of the situation.

“Although we have done many good things to eliminate tyranny … the overall ineptitude of our mission to date leaves us and Iraq in a terrible bind,” said Larry Diamond, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“We are in a crisis situation which needs rapid attention and strong nerves,” said Phebe Marr, a former senior fellow at the National Defense University.

Do Iraq experts think the situation can be salvaged?
The experts who testified before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, although pessimistic, did say the United States can salvage the situation.

“I cannot assure this committee or anyone else that we can still win an acceptable level of victory in Iraq, or that we could have done so with proper planning before the war started,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We have to deal with the aftermath of decades of tyranny and economic failure.”

But he added, “We have at least a 50-50 chance of coming out of this war” with what he called “an acceptable level of victory” if the United States supports the transfer of power to an Iraqi regime as quickly as possible.

“The United States cannot abandon its military effort to bring security to Iraq as long as there is hope and progress, but we must make every effort to rush forward the realistic training and equipping of Iraqi security forces,” he added.

And Cordesman said the United States and other countries must tell Iraqis that it will withdraw “if they do not reach workable political compromises. ... No Iraqi should operate under the illusion that either the U.N. or the U.S. will save Iraq from itself.”

“Don’t panic, take the long view,” cautioned Marr. “Iraqis want better management of the transition, not a ‘cut and run’ policy. The Iraq project is a long-distance race, not a spectacular high jump.”

She stressed the importance of economic aid that would help create jobs and help strengthen the Iraqi middle class.

Diamond suggested several steps, including: “Disavow any long-term military aspirations in Iraq. We should declare unambiguously that we will not seek any permanent American military bases in Iraq” and “set a target date for the full withdrawal of American forces. This may be three or four years in the future, but setting such a date will convince Iraqis that we are serious about leaving once the country is secure.”

Diamond also said that in the short run “we have a lot of hard work to do on the security front … and we are not going to get there unless we put some of the worst thugs and spoilers out of business, beginning with the Mahdi Army” loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

What is the worst-case scenario for events in Iraq?
Experts such as Marr say the worst outcome would be a “failed state” with a weak central government, similar to chaotic Lebanon in the 1980s. This would lead to civil war and create an environment for terrorists to set up bases and to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

What would be an Iraq scenario that is realistic and achievable?
Marr supplies one picture: an Iraqi government that represents most Iraqis, governing “a state free of terrorism, a state free of weapons of mass destruction, a government if not friendly at least not hostile to the United States and Israel.”

Such a scenario “will take five to 10 years to produce,” she said.

How is the situation in Iraq affecting Bush’s chances for a second term?
Recent polling shows a decline of public confidence in Bush's Iraq policy. A May 7-9 Gallup poll, for instance, showed public approval of his handling of Iraq was at 41 percent, a low point for his presidency. This in turn is pulling Bush to a statistical tie in “horse-race” polling with Kerry.

Has an incumbent president who is seeking re-election ever lost in war time?
No. But two wartime presidents gave up seeking a second term due in part to their inability to achieve victory in the wars they were fighting.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson, who had been elected with 61 percent of the vote in 1964, decided to not seek the Democratic nomination because his war policy had become so divisive and unpopular.

In 1950, President Truman, facing a stalemated war in Korea, decided to not seek a second term.

But a drawn-out war is not necessarily a predictor of certain defeat. With the Vietnam War still going in 1972, President Richard Nixon was re-elected with 61 percent of the vote over Democrat George McGovern, who advocated withdrawal from Vietnam.

Franklin Roosevelt won in 1944 over Republican Tom Dewey, even with U.S. combat deaths surpassing an average of 6,000 per month and Abraham Lincoln, running against Democratic peace candidate George McClellan won a second term in 1864, with Union combat deaths running at nearly 2,300 per month.

How do John Kerry’s and Ralph Nader’s positions differ from Bush’s?
Kerry has said, “the extremists attacking our forces should know they will not succeed in dividing America, or in sapping American resolve, or in forcing the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops.” He said Americans will “help the Iraqis build a stable, peaceful and pluralistic society. No matter who is elected president in November, we will persevere in that mission.”

But Kerry has argued that he’d do a better job than Bush at persuading some Europeans nation to contribute troops to help police Iraq.

Nader, on the other hand, has called for “responsible withdrawal of both U.S. military and corporate occupations … protect(ing) our troops by bringing them home, and internationally supervised elections with international peacekeepers from neutral countries.”

Has Congress ever moved to cut off funds or put a deadline on an overseas military deployment such as Iraq?
Yes, in December of 1970 Congress passed the Cooper-Church amendment, which prohibited U.S. military action in Laos or Thailand. That same year and again in 1971 Congress rejected versions of the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, which to set a deadline for withdrawal of all American forces from Vietnam.

In 1998, the House rejected a measure requiring withdrawal of U.S. forces from Bosnia.