Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Two pivotal, but underreported, developments are being overlooked in the escalating political battle over the war in Iraq.

First, no matter how disenchanted Americans have become about the war to establish a strong, stable pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East's terrorist breeding ground, a majority is still opposed to our pulling out before we have achieved that mission.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 52 percent want the United States to keep our troops in Iraq until Iraqis' security forces can maintain civil order. That hasn't changed. Despite a fierce Democratic offensive in Congress for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces next year, if not sooner, the poll found only about 1-in-5 believe the United States should get out right away.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert knew that when, in the face of a furious Democratic assault on the war issue, he decided to give the Democrats an up-or-down vote on an immediate pullout. That's essentially what John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, proposed Thursday.

In fact, there was no real consensus in Murtha's party about yanking U.S. troops out in the midst of Iraq's most perilous hour, and Hastert knew that, too.

After a similarly well-coordinated offensive in the Senate, followed by the usually hawkish Murtha's surprise pullout suggestion, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate leader Harry Reid and party chairman Howard Dean were milking the issue for all the political mileage they could get out of it. Republicans had to call their bluff, which Hastert did, scheduling a quick vote late Friday night.

"The Democrats want to play politics, so let's play politics with it. See if their votes are where their mouths are," barked Carl Forti, spokesman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.

The measure, predictably, was crushed 403-3. The Democrats were all talk and no convictions.

Second, no one is talking about the widening rift in Democratic ranks between the hard left antiwar wing and many of its congressional leaders. While Democrats may look like they are united against the war, they seem all over the lot, especially in their leadership ranks.

When a group of Senate Democratic war critics last week proposed an amendment suggesting a timetable for troop withdrawal, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, rushed to the floor to denounce the move. "The debate in our country and in this city has grown much too partisan over what is happening in Iraq," Lieberman lectured Democrats. "And that partisanship has begun to get in the way of our successful completion of our mission there."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.