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President George W Bush bucked public opinion and the new Democratic Congress with a high-stakes gamble on more US troops in Iraq, setting up a bruising political fight that could sink his fellow Republicans.
Barely two months after a resounding Democratic election victory seen as a rejection of his Iraq policy, Bush upped the ante in a televised address by ordering 21,500 more troops to Iraq rather than pulling back on the US commitment.
In his Wednesday speech Bush appeared to focus on history more than American politics, analysts said, making an audacious and perhaps final stab at turning around an increasingly unpopular war that will define his legacy as president.
"We are seeing a president defying public opinion in a way that no modern president has," said Bruce Buchanan, a political analyst at the University of Texas and a longtime Bush watcher.
"He has his eye on history. His most important jury is not the public but historians," he said. "For him, this is the defining issue of our times and he's hell-bent on avoiding surrender."
Opinion polls show declining public confidence in Bush's conduct of the war, with solid majorities opposed to the proposal to send more troops to secure Baghdad.
Democrats condemned the proposal and promised nonbinding votes in Congress on it, forcing Republicans to choose between breaking with Bush or embracing an unpopular policy just as the 2008 race for the White House gears up.
"Obviously there is tremendous scepticism in the public about where this policy is going, and Republicans will be the ones to pay any price," said Andrew Taylor, a political analyst at North Carolina State University.
A dozen Senate Republicans or more could break with Bush if the Senate holds a vote on the proposal, analysts said, weakening Bush even more as he enters the final two years of a lame duck presidency.
Many Republicans said Bush still deserves backing on Iraq, and Republican presidential contenders largely fell in line with Bush and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential frontrunner and a proponent of bolstering troop levels in Iraq.
"Success or failure in Iraq is not a matter of partisan politics but a matter of national security," said former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "I support the president's increase in troops."
But cracks began to appear in what has been for years largely solid Republican support for Bush on the war. Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who faces a tough re-election fight in 2008, said he opposed the increase in troops.
"It is not a strategy for victory," Coleman said.
Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a conservative and a longshot contender for president, was in Baghdad on Wednesday and met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer," said Brownback. "Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution."
For Democrats, the proposal offered the first chance to flex their new muscle in Congress, although Democratic congressional leaders were hesitant to try to cut off funding for the war.
"The president's decision is wrong for Iraq and wrong for America - and it's time for the new Congress to stop Bush from stubbornly pursuing his failed strategy in Iraq," Democratic presidential contender John Edwards said.
"Congress should make it clear to the president that he will not get any money to put more of our troops in harm's way until he provides a plan to turn responsibility of Iraq over to the Iraqi people and to ultimately leave Iraq," he said.
A coalition of liberal and Democratic activist groups including labor unions and veterans' groups said they would launch a national campaign against the proposal on Thursday.
Former Iowa Gov Tom Vilsack called on communities across America to pass a resolution opposing the troop increase. Bush's plan, he said, "will make his big Iraq mistake even bigger".
Buchanan said Bush's refusal to back down on Iraq was a reflection of his views on leadership.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
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