WASHINGTON — One year after President Bush announced his politically unpopular plan to send thousands more troops to Iraq, Democrats are struggling to counter the administration's argument that the buildup succeeded.
The influx of some 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines helped to secure the troubled Baghdad capital and western Anbar province. While more U.S. troops died in 2007 than in any other year since the war began, the death count declined substantially in the final months as operations were in full swing. And in Anbar in particular, local leaders turned against al-Qaida operatives and began cooperating with coalition forces, spurring optimism among U.S. officials that Iraq was reaching a turning point.
The upswing prompted Bush to declare this week that 2007, in the end, "had become incredibly successful, beyond anybody's expectations."
Still, the Iraqi government has made almost none of the political progress that was promised and Iraqi forces remains heavily dependent on U.S. troops _ a reality Democrats say isn't lost among voters.
"No amount of White House spin can hide the fact that the escalation's chief objective of political reconciliation remains unmet, Iraqis have not demonstrated any readiness to stand up and take responsibility for their own country, and 2007 was the most lethal year yet for American troops," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Public opinion may still be in the Democrats' corner, with firm disapproval of Bush's handling of the war since its inception. But the Iraq debate now must share center stage with hot domestic issues like health care, the economy and immigration. In this week's New Hampshire primary, exit polls showed Iraq took second place to the economy in importance for both Democratic and Republican voters.
The split focus is in sharp contrast to the 2006 elections, which were dominated heavily by the war and put Democrats in power for the first time in 12 years.
Of course, the war could easily rebound as the No. 1 issue for voters. The first big test of security gains linked to the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is at hand. The military already has begun reversing the troop increase and commanders are hoping the drop in insurgent and sectarian violence won't prove fleeting.
At the same time, however, the Pentagon is preparing to send at least 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan in April to bolster efforts to hold off another expected Taliban offensive in the spring, military officials said Wednesday. The move represents a shift in Pentagon thinking that has been slowly developing after months of repeated insistence that the U.S. was not inclined to fill the need for as many as 7,500 more troops that commanders have asked for there.
Democrats are likely to try again to set a timetable on troop withdrawals from Iraq when Congress reconvenes this year. But with Republicans sticking firmly behind the president, Democrats know it is unlikely such measures will pass for now.
Some moderates say they hope 2008 will be the year of compromise, in which Democratic leaders will agree to swing behind softer anti-war legislation in a bid to entice moderate Republicans. Republican support for legislation is crucial because Democrats hold a narrow margin of control in Congress and lack the two-thirds support to overcome a veto.
Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat, said he hopes that this year more attention will be drawn to his proposal that would restrict the mission of U.S. troops but not set a timeline for redeployments. However, he said, he's not sure what leadership will do just yet.
"Everybody's trying to figure out what is going to work," said Nelson.
Absent a deal on troop withdrawal legislation, Democrats this year are expected to tackle other war-related legislation intended still to challenge Bush's Iraq policies or highlight problems with the war. For example, the Senate this year might take up its version of a House bill that would ensure contractors working in Iraq can be prosecuted by U.S. courts.