While formal sovereignty was transferred to an Iraqi interim government on 28 June, Pentagon officials have said the US will likely maintain the current troop level for at least five years.

Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment is seeking to minimise any signs of disagreement between those within the party opposed to the military presence and those who say the US must stay the course. 

A majority of Democrats fall into the latter category, according to Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, an influential Democratic thinktank in Washington.  

Following the lead of their presumptive nominee John Kerry, most Democrats believe the US should re-engage the international community and maintain a significant troop level as long as it takes to achieve stability in Iraq, Marshall said. 

"We cannot afford simply to abandon Iraq to terrorists and chaos," he said. "I think that most Democrats are comfortable with that line. That's what they believe." 

Fence mending

Such attitudes were evident during a June hearing held by the drafting committee of the Democratic Party to develop a statement of principles, including its stand on Iraq.

The meeting focused on the importance of doing whatever is necessary to rebuild Iraq, while mending alliances strained by what some Democrats describe as the Bush administration's "unilateralist approach".

A clear stand on Iraq still eludes
the Democratic Party managers

"I don't know of any serious person, especially John Kerry, who is advocating cutting and running," Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator who ran for the party's presidential nomination in 1988, said at the meeting.

"We're going to have to be there for a long time."

The final platform, to be submitted at the forthcoming Democratic National Convention, echoes many of the speeches Kerry has made on Iraq over the past several months, urging greater international involvement in the political and economic reconstruction effort.

The document criticises the Bush administration for walking "away from more than a hundred years of American leadership in the world to embrace a new - and dangerously ineffective - disregard for the world".

Yet it also underscores the notion put forward by many moderate Democrats that achieving stability in Iraq is more important than lingering arguments over the justification for the war.

Party consensus

"Having gone to war, we cannot afford to fail at peace," the platform states. "We cannot allow a failed state in Iraq that inevitably would become a haven for terrorists and a destabilising force in the Middle East."

"I don't know of any serious person, especially John Kerry, who is advocating cutting and running"

Gary Hart, 
ex-Democratic senator

That statement reflects the party consensus at this stage, according to several Democratic insiders.

"I think Democrats are as united on Iraq as they have ever been on any issue," said Robert Boorstin, a national security fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal thinktank in Washington. 

However, some experts say the apparent unanimity is based only on an overwhelming desire to defeat George Bush. 

"There is agreement among Democrats that the Bush administration has mishandled the Iraq policy," says Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, the prestigious journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.  

"The consensus breaks down when you look closely at what that mishandling is."

Divided house

There are two schools of thought, Rose says: the side that maintains the US should never have gone to Iraq and those more hawkish Democrats who supported the war but feel the Bush team mangled the occupation. 

Achieving stability in Iraq is seen
as vital by the party's moderates

Kerry, who voted for a congressional resolution authorising the threat of force against Iraq, has leaned toward the latter side, but must try to avoid cutting off anti-war liberals who could opt to vote for Ralph Nader, an independent presidential candidate. 

"Kerry doesn't want to alienate either of these two camps," Rose says. 

So far, Kerry has been able to resist calls from the left of the party to back any precipitous military withdrawal from Iraq. 

"There are always people who disagree and want to pull people one way or the other," Boorstin says. "What's interesting is that [anti-war Democrats] don't seem to have much traction." 

"There is agreement among Democrats that the Bush administration has mishandled the Iraq policy. The consensus breaks down when you look closely at what
that mishandling is"

Gideon Rose,
Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs

Some analysts said Kerry might have lost leverage of his own in criticising Bush's handling of the occupation, since the administration managed to secure a UN resolution authorising the formation of an interim government.

One of Kerry's top critiques of the president's approach has been the failure to attract greater international cooperation on Iraq.

Though many Bush critics maintain that his diplomacy has been piecemeal at best, some experts say the administration has blunted Kerry's argument that the US is going it alone in Iraq.

Momentum lost

"The administration is quickly catching up to where the Democrats are," says Jay Farrar, a foreign-policy analyst at the Washington thinktank, Center for Strategic International Studies.

Farrar says Kerry has to think "bigger and bolder" to convince voters that he has a stronger vision for Iraq. 

"[Democrats] are stuck in that they have lost the momentum," he says. "They are chasing the Bush administration instead of getting out ahead and staking out a position."

A safe strategy for Kerry would
be to focus on Bush's mistakes

According to Rose of Foreign Affairs, the safer political strategy for Kerry may be to focus on what many Democrats believe to be Bush's mistakes in Iraq, rather than taking a more definitive stance and risking a backlash within his own party.
 

"If he suggested getting out, it would bring down some heat in certain quarters, and if he suggested staying there indefinitely, it would bring down criticism in other quarters." 

Because Iraq remains volatile and fluid, he says, there would be little advantage in outlining a fixed plan of action. 

"Given how screwed-up the situation is, there are no benefits for Kerry to coming up with a specific course, because there is no panacea," said Rose.

 

Small wonder, then, minimising signs of disagreement on the Iraq issue is what the Democratic Party's managers are aiming for at present.