How this US election may help Iraq

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The prospect of a Democrat-run Congress after the Nov. 7 election would put both parties in charge of Iraq. Might Democrats and President Bush then work together for a joint exit plan? Various plans are now in the wind, hinting a consensus is possible.

Both parties already know the public is increasingly disgruntled at the way the Bush administration and the GOP Congress have mismanaged Iraq after the 2003 invasion, making it an issue in the 2006 midterm elections. But many voters may be equally concerned with the way both parties use the war to score political points in campaigns rather than search out a bipartisan approach to ending the US role in Iraq.

These political moods are understandable.

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Three years of progress in forming an elected Iraqi government have not been matched by the building of effective Iraqi forces or an economy that can help curb rising Sunni-Shiite violence. A battle for Baghdad between fanatics appears to have no end.

So Americans grow impatient, partly because many remain unconvinced of the long-term promise for Arab democracy or that it can temper Islamic radicalism. And their post-9/11 unity is fraying in the face of daily reports of killings in Iraq for a distant, idealistic cause aimed at preventing more 9/11s. With Iraqi officials unable to meet many benchmarks to stabilize their country, the US sacrifice seems too high.

But also high are possible consequences of a quick US withdrawal. Neither party wants to be held responsible for a Middle East implosion along Shiite-Sunni lines or creation of a breeding ground for terrorism exports in a post-US Iraq.

That mutual concern should bring the parties together to design an exit strategy that reflects both the facts on the ground in Iraq and the mood of Americans to reduce the sacrifice in casualties and dollars – and to mend the political divisions over the conduct of this war.

Even if Democrats make only modest gains, a new Congress may be able to turn over a new leaf for US policy in Iraq. And both parties await recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by GOP statesman James Baker. The study, requested by Congress and endorsed by Mr. Bush, promises to lay out several options by January.

Mr. Baker, who warns there is no magic bullet for the US in Iraq, indicates the group will seek answers that lie somewhere between the easy clichés of "stay the course" and "cut and run." The Pentagon already seems to be moving toward one idea of somehow forcing changes in the Iraqi government. On Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the US wants a "set of projections" from the Iraqi government for it to take more responsibility. "They're going to have to do it sooner rather than later," he said. One sign of results from US pressure: This week, the Iraqi prime minister fired two commanders of special police commandos on suspicion of those units being infiltrated by Shiite militias.

The Baker group's recommendations would give a postelection excuse for Democrats and the GOP to find common ground for a "Plan B." But for now, it's voters who seem to want Republicans and Democrats in the next Congress to cross the aisle and try something different in Iraq.

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