Democrats have completed their sweep of the US Congress by capturing control of the Senate, handing President George W. Bush a stunning defeat that alters the political landscape for years to come.

A Democratic victory in a tight Senate race in Virginia late Wednesday capped a dramatic day of developments that earlier saw Bush dump his much-criticized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the first casualty of an election seen as a referendum on the Iraq war.

US television networks and major newspapers based their reports of the Senate takeover on a survey of Virginia election districts conducted by the news agency Associated Press, which saw Democrat Jim Webb defeating Republican incumbent George Allen by some 7,200 votes out of a total of 2.3 million ballots.

Webb declared victory in the race Wednesday, but Allen has so far declined to concede defeat.

The Virginia victory, the final race out of 33 Senate seats up for grabs, handed Democrats control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

The win gave Democrats an effective majority in the upper chamber and came after the party won the House of Representatives by a wide margin Tuesday.

Bush acknowledged Wednesday that voters were frustrated over the Iraq war and announced Rumsfeld’s resignation and replacement with former CIA director Robert Gates.

The decision to dispense with the man who had become the face of a military victory gone sour suggested a major change of strategy in Iraq could be in the works.

“I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there,” Bush told a news conference.

The president said he wanted “a fresh perspective” on how to secure victory, and signalled he was ready to work with the Democrats on a new strategy for a country where 2,800 US troops have died along with tens of thousands of civilians.

Already flexing their new power, Democrats welcomed Rumsfeld’s departure.

“For the first time it looks like the president is listening,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, architect of the party’s surge in the Senate.

News of Webb’s balance-tilting victory came after US networks said Democrat Jon Tester beat incumbent Republican Conrad Burns in Montana by fewer than 3,000 votes to pick up a fourth seat for the party.

Combined with two avowed pro-Democrat Independent senators in the 100-member body, the Democrats ended up with a 51-49 margin over Bush’s party.

The finalization of the results could be delayed, however, as neither Burns nor Allen had conceded defeat, holding out the possibility of lengthy recounts.

Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who will become the powerful majority leader in the upper house, said his party was ready to forge a new direction for the country.

“The American people have spoken clearly and decisively in favor of Democrats leading this country in a new direction,” Reid said in a statement.

“In Iraq and here at home, Americans have made clear they are tired of the failures of the last six years.”

The new Congress to be seated in January was “ready to get to work” on a number of issues, from “changing course in Iraq, to raising the minimum wage, to fixing the health-care crisis, to making this country energy independent,” he said.

Earlier, Bush implicitly acknowledged that the election was a referendum on his leadership.

“As the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility … I look at it race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.”

Rumsfeld’s departure capped a storied career of a political bruiser who served twice as Pentagon chief, and was White House chief of staff to president Gerald Ford, after starting out as a navy pilot.

But he will likely go down in history as the man who led US troops into war in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and a subsequent quagmire in Iraq, from which there seem few acceptable exit strategies.

His successor, former spy chief Gates, 63, has served six US presidents, including the current US leader’s father George H. Bush.

Significantly, he is a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group under former Republican secretary of state James Baker due to soon report to Bush on new US approaches in Iraq.

The Republican defeat means Bush will face new scrutiny over Iraq and a difficult two final years in the White House.

The opposition party beat most predictions by picking up nearly 30 seats to take control of the 435-member House for the first time since 1994.

Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner said his party was “deeply disappointed” but predicted it would reclaim a majority in 2008.

Voters piled on anger over the course of the war in Iraq and a heap of corruption and scandals which have tainted the Republicans in the past two years, exit polls suggested.

They also expressed concern over skyrocketing health care costs, the economy, illegal immigration and “values” issues such as stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion.

Republican congressional incumbents crashed to defeat in at least 16 states.

The Democrats also won six governors’ seats to take the majority of the 50 statehouses for the first time in 12 years. Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, bucked the trend and was re-elected in California, crushing Democratic rival Phil Angelides.

Democrat Keith Ellison, from Minnesota, became the first Muslim elected to Congress, and Hillary Clinton easily beat her Republican rival to claim a second Senate term, further spurring expectations of a 2008 presidential run.

Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse