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Thursday, June 15, 2006 - Page updated at 09:52 AM

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House launches impassioned debate on Iraq

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The House erupted in impassioned, election-year debate over Iraq war today, Republicans defending the conflict as key to winning the global struggle against terrorism while Democrats excoriated President Bush and his policies.

"Is it al-Qaida or is it America? Let the voters take note of this debate," said Republican Rep. Charles Norwood of Georgia, attacking war critics as defeatists who do not deserve re-election.

The war was "a grotesque mistake," countered the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. "The administration continues to dig a hole. They refuse to come up and see the light," she said.

The debate unfolded four months before midterm elections that will decide the control of Congress.

The United States has absorbed the deaths of 2,500 troops in the three-year conflict, which began when a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, but quickly turned sour in the face of a brutal insurgency.

Polls show the war has become unpopular. But Bush has tried to rally support in the days since the death of terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the recent completion of an new Iraqi government.

The Pentagon prepared a battle plan for the debate, distributing a highly unusual 74-page "debate prep book" filled with ready-made answers for criticism of the war.

"Iraq will become a haven for terrorists, murderers and thugs," if the United States leaves "before the job is done," the booklet says.

"We cannot cut and run," it says at another point, anticipating Democratic calls for a troop withdrawal on a fixed timetable.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the 74-page document. It was sent to both Republicans and Democrats and it laid out the administration's positions in strong terms and offered page after page of counterpoints to criticisms that Democrats typically level against Bush's war policies.

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"In this fight for the future of peace, freedom and democracy in the Middle East and around the globe, winning should be our only option," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

Countered Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich.: "Retired generals have spoken. We need a new direction. The troops should be redeployed. They should be brought home at the most practicable time with a plan that we don't now have under this administration."

Republicans arranged for the debate to culminate in a vote either later today or Friday on legislation — a resolution — that labels the Iraq war part of the larger global fight against terrorism and says an "arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of troops is not in the national interest.

Across the Capitol, partisan tensions on the Iraq war were clear as the Senate debated annual military legislation. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic Party presidential candidate in 2004 and a potential 2008 standard-bearer, expected to introduce an amendment that calls for the administration to redeploy combat forces from that war zone by year's end.

In the House, Republicans sought to put lawmakers of both parties on record on an issue certain to be central in this fall's congressional elections.

"The fundamental question in this debate is: Are we going to confront the threat of terrorism and defeat it, or will we relent and retreat and hope the problem goes away?" House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, providing a preview of the possible GOP line of attack should Democrats balk.

As the death toll and price tag of Iraq rise, opinion polls show voters are frustrated with the war and favor Democrats to control Congress instead of the Republicans who now run the show.

Sensitive to those political realities, House Republican leaders want to make Democrats defend their positions on Iraq — and highlight deep differences on the matter within the Democratic Party — while trying to present their own unified position calling for staying the course in both Iraq and the larger war on terrorism.

But differences also exist within the GOP and those are sure to be discussed as well.

Republican leaders portray the debate as the first of its kind since the Iraq war started in 2003. But they staged a similar vote on a resolution rejecting the immediate withdrawal of troops last year after Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, in a reversal, called for a quick exit from Iraq.

Democrats dismiss the House GOP resolution as nothing more than political theatrics, and they were expected to use the debate to rail against Bush's wartime policies. Yet they also are mindful that voting against such a resolution could leave them vulnerable to attacks by Republicans who could claim that Democrats who opposed the resolution don't support U.S. troops and advocate a "cut-and-run" strategy.

To that end, a memo this week by Boehner urged his fellow Republicans to frame the debate as "a portrait of contrasts between Republicans and Democrats."

In both the House and Senate, Democrats appear to be divided into three camps. Some want troops to leave Iraq this year. Others object to setting any kind of timetable. A number of them want the United States to start redeploying forces by year's end but don't want to set a date when all troops should be out.

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