POLITICS
04/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fierce Iraq Fighting Forces War Back Onto Campaign Trail

The heavy fighting that broke out last week as Iraqi security forces tried to oust Shiite militias from Basra is reverberating on the presidential campaign trail and posing new challenges and opportunities to the candidates, particularly Senator John McCain.

The fierce fighting -- and the threat that it could undo a long-term truce that has greatly helped to reduce the level of violence in Iraq -- thrust the war back into the headlines and the public consciousness just as it had been receding behind a tide of economic concerns.

And it raised anew a host of politically charged questions about whether the current strategy is succeeding, how capable the Iraqis are of defending themselves and what the potential impact would be of any American troop withdrawals.

Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made the Iraq war a centerpiece of his campaign; he rode to success in the primary season partly on his early advocacy of the troop buildup. The battle in Basra broke out as he returned from a trip to Iraq this month, proclaiming that violence there was down and that the troop escalation was working.

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, said he was encouraged that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government had sent its troops to reclaim Basra from the Shiite militias.

"I think it's a sign of the strength of his government," Mr. McCain said Friday at a stop in Las Vegas. "I think it's going to be a tough fight. We know that these militias are well entrenched there. I hope they will succeed and succeed quickly."

The Democrats, who are calling for phased troop withdrawals, are beginning to point to the fighting in Basra as evidence that the American troop buildup has failed to provide stability and political reconciliation -- particularly if the fighting leads one militia, the Mahdi Army, to pull out of its cease-fire; that could lead to a new spate of sectarian violence across the country. Some are saying the fighting strengthens their case for troop withdrawals.

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