Conflict in Iraq divides Democrats

Party members split on how to end the war


WASHINGTON -- For evidence of the struggle among Democrats on the best way forward in Iraq, look no further than Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Steny H. Hoyer, the party's top House leaders, whose personal ties and Maryland roots run deep.

Since the debate began, more than three years ago, over whether to go to war, the two have disagreed: He voted for the war, while she argued vehemently against it. Now, as Democrats grapple with the political strategy and the policy questions surrounding how to end the conflict, they are again presiding over different factions of their party.

Pelosi, a San Francisco congresswoman whose father represented Baltimore in Congress and then served as mayor, recently announced that she would back Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, a combat veteran and staunch military supporter who recently jolted the debate by proposing a relatively speedy withdrawal and redeployment.

Hoyer, a 25-year House veteran from an increasingly conservative district in Southern Maryland, maintains that the troops should come home only when the security situation in Iraq makes it workable.

On the day Pelosi, the Democratic leader, announced her embrace of Murtha's stance, Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, released a statement saying that "a precipitous withdrawal of our forces in Iraq could lead to disaster," a word that, he acknowledges, might have been a bit strong.

But as their party looks to next year's midterm elections -- with Iraq almost certain to be a major issue -- some analysts point to the disagreement as the personification of a larger problem.

"It certainly would be much better if the Democrats had a clear strategy, theme and tactics with respect to the policy on the war," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "They don't. That hurts them."

Last week, House Democrats huddled for the first time since Murtha dropped his bombshell. For more than an hour, individual members pitched their plans. According to people who attended the meeting, Hoyer -- responding to news reports highlighting the divide between him and Pelosi -- asked his colleagues to stop providing fodder to the opposition and focus on emphasizing the places where Democrats do agree on what comes next.

Republicans have highlighted recent comments by Pelosi and by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean -- who said, "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that, unfortunately, is just plain wrong" -- and tried to use them to label the entire party.

Late last week, the Republican National Committee released an ad, featuring Dean and Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, headlined, "Democrats have a plan in Iraq: Retreat and defeat."

Wary of handing Republicans another chance to club them as weak on defense and national security, a number of Democrats have been careful to distance themselves.

That group included Hoyer. Criticized by some party liberals for being too conservative but valued by moderates as their voice in the Democratic leadership, the 66-year-old Marylander has tried to change voters' perception of Democrats on military and security issues.

Hoyer is quick to say that his position doesn't mean there aren't lots of substantive questions worth raising about the way the administration has handled the war, including its failure to better equip U.S. forces or assemble a broader coalition for rebuilding Iraq. Hoyer and Pelosi say that they are speaking only for themselves and that other Democrats are equally free to express their own opinions.

In an interview, Hoyer said the differences between him and Pelosi are being blown out of proportion. They also may be irrelevant, he said, because this week's elections in Iraq could drastically change the equation, there and at home.

"The elections are a long ways away, vis-a-vis what's going to happen in Iraq," he said, referring to the U.S. midterm elections. "When you ask me, am I concerned about a policy going into the elections? Frankly, if this were September of next year, the answer to that question might be `yes.' But the answer now is emphatically `no,' because I think we have to see what happens."

He and Pelosi -- a Maryland native whose father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., and brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, served as mayors of Baltimore -- have known each other for decades, and Hoyer said they have a strong relationship.

"I think she's doing a good job as our leader," he said, "and I am supportive of her for speaker," if Democrats win a majority of House seats next year.

Pelosi said her relationship with Hoyer is "fine" and pointed out that, when the House voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002, she disagreed with Hoyer and the Democratic leader at the time, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

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