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Growing GOP Dissent On Iraq

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

President Bush is facing increasing dissent among leading conservative politicians and pundits in the face of mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq.

The war has become the long slog that some Republicans feared. Since Sunday, 32 Americans have been killed in fighting across Iraq. American body bags are on the front page of major U.S. newspapers.

The Washington Post and The New York Times brandished images of charred U.S. civilian remains last week. The networks are leading their nightly news broadcasts with stories of dead Americans.

"If we have two or three more weeks of this you are going to start to see Republican members of Congress who have never been critical of President Bush and the Iraq policy starting to get that way," said Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Republican Party ranks are beginning to break and the White House is worried. Longtime GOP critics on Iraq are growing progressively more vocal in their condemnation.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, has strongly suggested that the Bush administration reconsider its June 30 deadline to transfer sovereignty from the interim government to Iraqis.

"How do you know, come June 30, that a civil war will not occur?" Lugar said on Voice of America radio. "After all, the coalition has not disarmed all of these militia that these religious groups have in various places. They still are armed and apparently ready to fight."

Usually loyal pundits are speaking out, too. Conservative columnist George Will wrote in The Washington Post on Wednesday, "U.S. forces in Iraq are insufficient."

There are currently 135,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq – along with 24,000 international troops – and pressure is rising on the Bush administration to increase troop deployment. But the Department of Defense says it plans to decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by tens of thousands around the June 30 deadline.

The White House continues to claim that most Iraqis support the American presence. But even some ardent conservative backers of the president are voicing skepticism.

"I'm not buying this 'Iraqis are on the American side' right now," Fox News' Bill O'Reilly said on the Tuesday night broadcast of "The O'Reilly Factor." The leading conservative commentator repeatedly called the current conflict a "second war in Iraq."

O'Reilly added, "I think Rumsfeld has got a lot of explaining to do here. There's a lot of mistakes that are now killing American soldiers."

Fellow conservative pundit and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough of MSNBC was even more critical in his broadcast Tuesday.

Scarborough: "Do we need more troops in Iraq? Hell, yes, we do. ... Should June 30 handover date to the Iraqis be extended? You can bet your life on it ... because creating this false deadline in time for a presidential election is no way to win a war."

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry called the administration's June 30 deadline "arbitrary" in an NPR interview broadcast Wednesday. He also accused President Bush of not providing "Americans with a thorough understanding of exactly who we are turning the authority over to and precisely what the consequences of that will be."

The presumptive Democratic nominee's criticism of the president is no surprise. But for that criticism to be echoed by leaders of Mr. Bush's own party and top conservative pundits is a problem that could have grave affects on the president's hopes of winning reelection.

"Now that things aren't going so well, Republican critics are more open in their criticism," Cook said. "When there was a limit in how critical they could be of their own president before, even though they thoroughly disagreed."

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska told CNN Tuesday that the Bush administration has "few good options" left regarding Iraq. The implication: the White House has dug a ditch that it possibly cannot get out of without getting its hands dirty.

The foundation of the president's reelection campaign is the portrayal of Mr. Bush as the steady commander in chief successfully fighting the war on terror (the war in Iraq being one and the same to the Bush White House). Republicans questioning Mr. Bush's leadership in that war adds more fodder to Sen. Kerry's larger critique of the president.

A Pew Research Center national survey conducted this week shows that the majority of Americans now disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. Adding to the GOP dilemma, on Election Day there is more at stake for Republicans than the White House alone.

"For the first time in this election cycle there is some doubt about whether the Republicans will be able to hold onto the Senate," Cook said, adding his own critique of the Iraq war effort.

"Whether you agree about whether we should've done it or not, it is hard to say the war is being done well."

By David Paul Kuhn