This loosely defined group of ideologues was credited by many with convincing President George Bush to launch a pre-emptive attack against Saddam Hussein.

Now, nearly 10 months after Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, almost 530 US troops have been killed, no weapons of mass destruction have been found and the political influence of neoconservatives is in doubt, according to some foreign policy experts.

The failure thus far to find WMD stockpiles, the ongoing US casualties and the mounting economic cost of the occupation all damaged the neoconservative position, said Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a bimonthly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The failure thus far to find WMD stockpiles, the ongoing US casualties and the mounting economic cost of the occupation all damaged the neoconservative position, said Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a bimonthly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I think all that has made the neocon star fade a little, both within the administration, where they're viewed as kind of a liability, but in the political debate as well," Rose said.

Others, including John Hulsman, a research fellow at the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington, dismiss the notion that the Iraq war cost neoconservatives any stature.

“A lot of people might assume that the events of Iraq may have discredited the neoconservative position in the Republican party, but I don’t think that has happened,” Hulsman said.

Brazen desire

There remains a debate in Washington over exactly who and what constitutes a neoconservative. They are often characterised as a roving band of policy experts whose most brazen desire is to reshape totalitarian regimes around the world into more US-friendly beacons of democracy.

They abhor the notion of multilateral diplomacy and view the United Nations as a glorified babysitter for weaker governments, and a mere nuisance for the world's sole-remaining superpower.

Amid the chaos and uncertainty of Bush's so-called war on terrorism, neocons view democracy as the political antidote to the disease of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and other strategically important regions across the globe.

In short, the neocons advocate with passion and vigour that which Bush once rejected out of hand: nation building.

Amid the chaos and uncertainty of Bush's so-called war on terrorism, neocons view democracy as the political antidote to the disease of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and other strategically important regions across the globe.

"The neocons care about beating up the bad guys and promoting American interests," Rose said.

Defence group

Within the administration, the neoconservatives are mainly concentrated in the Department of Defence.

Chief neocon: Deputy Defence
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz

Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz is commonly referred to as the chief neoconservative and one of the principle architects of the war in Iraq. Few experts refer to Donald Rumsfeld as a neoconservative, but rather a national security hawk who found some common ground with the neocons on the issue of Iraq.

Vice-President Dick Cheney is sometimes tagged with the neoconservative label, but many experts put him in the Rumsfeld camp. Hulsman said Cheney might not have been a neocon in the past, but is one now.

"I think Dick Cheney is a genuine convert," he said.

Other figures outside the administration, such as William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, and Richard Perle, an influential former Pentagon official in Ronald Reagan's administration, are two of the more prominent neoconservatives.

Though Perle is a member of the Defence Policy Board, a group that advises the Pentagon, experts question how much influence neoconservatives in nongovernmental positions actually have on the administration’s policy decisions.

Iraq question

What few question is how much neoconservative ideology contributed to US actions in Iraq, something many attribute to the impact the September 11 terrorist attacks had on the country's attitude about foreign policy.

"Rarely in American history has such a cohesive and distinctive group managed to exert so decisive an influence on such a crucial issue as the neocons did on Iraq from the collapse of the twin towers through the early stages of the occupation of Baghdad almost two years later," wrote Joshua Micah Marshall in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs.

A service for US soldiers killed in
Iraq marks the rising death toll

Part of that influence, however, was based on the notion that the occupation of Iraq would be less problematic than it has proven to be thus far, several experts said.

While it remains to be seen if Iraq will transform itself into a viable democracy, devoid of debilitating ethnic and religious fragmentation, few neoconservatives predicted the post-combat costs and casualties that continue to mount with each passing month.

"Some of the larger notions, in terms of Iraq, will be easy and it will change the politics of the entire region," said Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East and Gulf studies at the Council On Foreign Relations.

Neocon cost

Though it is still early, the impact many neoconservatives said regime change in Iraq would have on the peace process and Middle East governance has yet to materialise, said Charles Kupchan, a former National Security Council official under President Bill Clinton and currently a professor of international relations at Georgetown University.

"The bottom line is that the neocons were seemingly wrong about the implications of the war, how it would play in Iraq, how it would play in the Middle East, how it would play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Kupchan said.

Nevertheless, he adds that it is the neocons group that still displays ideological dominance.

Whether neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz have the ear of Bush is unclear, said Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"I think the jury is still out on the influence on the president," Benjamin said. "I think certainly in the wider country there are lots of questions about what we've got into."

Soured relationship

That the administration chose to pursue such diplomatic avenues as inviting the United Nations to return to Iraq to help oversee the transition of power into Iraqi hands, could be a sign that Bush has soured a bit on the neoconservative vision, Kupchan said.

"Some of these things are anathema to the neocons," he said.

Despite criticism in some circles of the administration's handling of the post-war occupation, many supporters of the war said the events of the past few months vindicated the neoconservative argument for regime change.

Iraq's leading Shia cleric Ayat
Allah Ali al-Sistani

"The fact that we're involved with the Grand Ayat Allah [Ali al-Sistani] about politics and not killing each other is a huge success," Hulsman said.

Furthermore, he cited the capture of Saddam Hussein late last year as a major factor in the decision by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi to abandon his country’s nuclear weapons programme.

Though there are disagreements as to why Qadhafi chose to reverse course on pursuing weapons technology some argue that the move could have been foreseen. "That is precisely the kind of thing that the neocons predicted would have happened after the capture of Saddam," Hulsman said.

Even if weapons of mass destruction are never found in Iraq, Hulsman claims the neoconservatives successfully insulated themselves from criticism by employing a multi-faceted rationale for going to war in the first place.

In the long term, however, the neoconservative desire for hard-line US policies toward other Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Syria will be negated by the failure to locate alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the difficulties encountered in achieving stability in the country, Bronson said.

If President Bush wins a second term in office, she said old-fashioned diplomacy would likely be the overriding strategy in the Middle East.

"A lot of policies in the region will be dealt with a lot more quietly and traditionally," she said.