President George W. Bush faces a critical test this week with Iraqi elections that mark a defining moment in his campaign to convince Americans to support his Iraq war strategy.
Bush needs a relatively smooth showing during Thursday’s parliamentary elections in Iraq to hold up as a sign of progress to counter daily scenes of suicide bombings and U.S. troop deaths that have soured the American public on the war.
“He needs some good news in Iraq,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, whose polls chart American attitudes. “He would be well served by a successful election.”
Bush is fighting to get his second term back on track after a year in which Americans lost faith in his ability to manage the war and a growing number came to believe his administration misled them in making the case for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The White House hopes that a successful election will be a symbolic blow to the insurgency and boost the confidence of Americans, giving Bush more time to pursue his strategy of training Iraqi security forces before reducing U.S. troops.
An election day marred by violence and disarray would likely embolden Democratic critics who say Bush lacks a coherent plan for success and an ultimate U.S. pullout.
“He must be candid and honest about the current situation, what is at stake, what it will take to succeed, how long the mission will last and what it will cost,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island in the Democrats’ weekly radio address on Saturday.
Bush gives the third in a series of speeches on Monday in Philadelphia trying to bolster American support for his policy, this time talking about the political progress Iraq is making. The last speech will be on Wednesday in Washington.
Anxiously watching are Republicans who hope real progress can be made in Iraq and help them to hang on to control of the U.S. Congress in next November’s elections.
“I think the Iraqi elections are a big step for Bush, moving forward to bring closure to the Iraq process,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
With Iraq a likely topic of fierce debate in 2006 mid-term elections, some Democrats are pressuring Bush for a speedy drawdown of U.S. troops. Bush so far has been able to fend off the critics by exploiting fissures in the opposition party.
Prominent Democrats have bickered openly on options in Iraq ranging from quick withdrawal to gradual troop redeployment to support for the war effort.
“I reject the pessimists in Washington who say we can’t win this war,” Bush said in a speech last week.
After 8 million Iraqis voted for a temporary government in January and 10 million in October on a constitutional referendum, White House officials were cautiously optimistic about a broad turnout on Thursday with greater participation from disaffected Sunni Arabs.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan predicted the violence would not subside after the elections, continuing a recent trend toward more openly acknowledging problems with U.S. attempts to reconstruct Iraq.
“There will be difficult challenges. But the election is a significant milestone for the future of a free Iraq,” he said.
Euphoria over past elections has quickly evaporated in a cloud of violence. Experts said a decrease in Iraqi violence was more critical than elections in turning around American opinion.
Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the January and October elections did not lead to a higher degree of approval for Bush and doubted Thursday’s elections will do so either.
“There will have to be something much more tangible on the ground,” she said.
© Reuters 2005