Bush, Kerry and Iraq's sovereignty

Does handover diminish war as an election factor?

This week's milestone - the transfer of power in Iraq to an interim government - is a vital factor in the US election. And it doesn't matter at all.

Three-quarters of Americans wanted the US occupation forces to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis, according to the Gallup poll. The handover, Americans hope, signaled progress toward the the goal of the US ultimately extricating itself from Iraq. President Bush also wins points for sticking to his self-imposed June 30 deadline, and accomplishing it in low-key fashion, two days early.

But there was no "Mission Accomplished" banner over any of the week's events. In the end, what matters for Mr. Bush's reelection prospects is how Iraq - and the issue of national security - is doing by fall.

"The snapshot of Iraq in mid-late September, maybe early October, that's what it's about," says independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Many Americans feel beaten down by war coverage, and have a sense that things are worse than they had hoped they'd be at this point, he adds. That's why the polls show a clear majority of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track. "The transfer could look like the light at the end of tunnel," Mr. Rothenberg continues. "At the end of the day, if Iraq improves, then it will be things like the economy that reelect Bush."

But that's a big "if." If US casualties continue apace, the American public will notice. Bush has set high expectations for Iraq - nothing short of setting the country on a path toward democracy as a model for the entire Middle East. This week's transfer is the only clear landmark for progress before the US elections on Nov. 2.

"The turnover represents a risk, because the American people will expect some change associated with this," says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University. "There's no evidence from the polls that the American people expect a Garden of Eden. But if the next three months go the way February, March, and April went, that will be a problem."

For the White House, there's also a risk that the turnover will accelerate public desire for a US pullout from Iraq, or at least a reduction in US forces there. A New York Times/CBS poll this week found that 40 percent of Americans believe the US should withdraw from Iraq "as soon as possible," a number that's risen steadily.

The atmospherics of the war, as they affect life here, will also play on opinion. For every headline conveying progress in Iraq, such as Saddam Hussein's appearance Thursday in an Iraqi court, the Bush administration must also weather negative headlines, such as the unusual call up of retired US military to return to active duty, and a new report saying 1 in 6 American vets back from Iraq suffers from post- traumatic stress disorder.

But despite months of negative news, such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Bush has held his own against Democratic challenger John Kerry: Major polls consistently show them neck and neck. And for all the certainty that most likely voters express about their candidates, some remain ambivalent.

Jonathon Hernandez, a student at Berklee Business School in New York, says the war was necessary in the beginning. He cites the threat he believes Mr. Hussein posed to Iraqis and to America. "But now things have gotten out of control. It's horrible about all these kidnappings and beheadings. I never thought I'd say this, but if I had to vote for anyone, it would be Kerry."

Another New Yorker, librarian Frederic Landais, also expresses displeasure over the war - but isn't sure he can pull the lever for Senator Kerry either. "We just didn't receive enough information about why we were going to war," he says. "I feel like the government was keeping us in the dark. And now the war is officially over, but I think ... the violence will continue."

Still, Mr. Landais isn't sure he's ready to toss Bush out of office. "I'm not sold on Kerry ... so I'm still waiting to see what will come up," he says. "I might not vote at all."

More typical are the voters who are firmly for one side or the other. "I support the war," says Steve Sebastian of Pensacola, Fla., vacationing in New York City with his wife. "I hope Iraq will be able to enjoy the democracy and peaceful independence they have been given. I'm optimistic ... now that they have sovereignty."

Mr. Sebastian is ready to go to the polls again for Bush. But others are just as motivated to vote against him. Bryan Dowling, an advertising agent who lives in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, is originally from Indiana and considers himself a moderate - but he's out to replace Bush.

The handover of sovereignty "is mostly symbolic," he says. "I used to be of the mind-set that we can't just pull out - we can't go in and wreck a country and then leave. But the more information we get, I realize it's not that easy to spread this brand of democracy."

Adds Mr. Dowling, on his way to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" for the second time: "I do care about Iraq becoming stable ... but it's not just about pulling our soldiers out now, it's about letting the Iraqis get in the business of running their own country."

Chad, another Chicagoan, who used to be in the Army and declined to give his last name, says his views have changed over the past decade. "I was much more pro-military then," he says. He doesn't think Iraq's new sovereignty means much, and wishes US troops were pulling out.

"It reminds me of Vietnam," he continues, clarifying that Vietnam was different, because of the draft, but similar in that many soldiers didn't want to fight there. Today, he sees a similar "false hope - being told you only have 90 days left [and then having to stay]. Meanwhile, the families back home are having trouble paying rent."

Carly Baldwin contributed from New York City and Amanda Paulson contributed from Chicago.

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