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Now, how to put Iraqis in charge

Democrats, buoyed by their midterm win, favor a 'tough love' approach with the Iraqi government.

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On Capitol Hill, there is near agreement on at least one aspect of Iraq policy: the Iraqis themselves need to shoulder more of the burden of stabilizing their country. But this consensus breaks down over the obvious follow-up question. How?

Many Democrats, newly emboldened by their election victories, favor an approach that might be labeled "tough love." It goes something like this: If the US plans a phased pullout of troops within four to six months, the Iraqi government will face up to what has to be done.

"This is not precipitous; it is a responsible way to change the dynamic in Iraq," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, soon to be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a Wednesday hearing.

But the White House – and the top generals of the US military – favor a strategy that they consider more nurturing. The US needs to intensify efforts to train the Iraqi armed forces to fight for themselves, according to Gen. John Abizaid, US commander in the Middle East. A scheduled US pullout might simply cause Iraq's sectarian factions to prepare for chaos to come.

The gap between these approaches suggests that despite the recent shift in US politics, in Washington there are heated debates over Iraq yet to come.

"I believe in my heart of hearts that the Iraqis must win this battle with our help," General Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Iraq debate, post-midterms

Democrats don't ascend to control of the House and Senate until next year. But the promise of future power can lead to assertiveness in the present, and this week, with Congress back in session, Democrats were not shy about pressing their case for a change in strategy in Iraq.

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