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Change in Washington, change in Iraq?

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- The war in Iraq dominated the build-up to Tuesday's U.S. midterm elections and the Democrats marked their success in reclaiming control of the House of Representatives by promising to place the conflict squarely at the center of their agenda.

"Nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a new direction than in the war in Iraq," said Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi, set to become the first female speaker of the chamber after her party claimed their first majority since 1994.

"We cannot continue down this catastrophic path and so we say to the president, 'Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq.'"

With 54 percent of Americans telling a CNN poll on Monday they believed a Democrat-controlled Congress would move the Iraq war in the right direction, Pelosi's words will raise hopes further that a shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill will provide a mandate for change in Iraq.

Such expectations are not restricted to the U.S. In Baghdad, Iraqi Ali Rahim told CNN's John Roberts: "If the Democrats win then the American forces will withdraw from Iraq because the Democrats believe they have had a great loss in Iraq and they see it as a second Vietnam."

Yet those expecting an immediate change of direction are likely to be disappointed.

Even jostled by a Democratic Congress, U.S. foreign policy remains a prerogative of the executive branch of government -- and Vice-President Dick Cheney vowed last week that the current administration would not be dissuaded from its present course.

"It's full speed ahead for victory in Iraq and that's exactly what we're going to do," he told reporters.

But analyst Michael Williams of the UK-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told CNN the Democrats could "make life very difficult" for U.S. President George W. Bush.

One option open to Congress would be to reduce military funding for the war. But Williams said Democrats were unlikely to take a step that risked leaving them open to accusations of being weak on national security -- and of abandoning troops in Iraq.

Instead, Williams said, a Democrat-controlled Congress was likely to set in motion a series of inquiries into U.S. actions in Iraq and become the forum for "increasingly vocal Democratic opposition" to current policy in Iraq.

"Now that is more looking into the past than having an effect on future or current foreign policy. But what it will do is set the groundwork for a change in policy," he said.

One man likely to be the subject of increased scrutiny is Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, especially after the publication of an editorial in the Army Times newspaper this week which accused the defense secretary of being out of touch with senior military commanders.

"The Democrats will annunciate once again that he should go," said Williams. "A new head of defense would open the room, if the president was willing to listen, for a different strategy in Iraq."

But one problem facing the Democrats is that while they have the backing of a majority of Americans in calling for a new direction in Iraq, no such consensus exists as to what that strategy should be.

Williams said Democratic senators such as Jack Reed and Joe Biden -- who have called for a partial withdrawal of U.S. troop before the end of the year -- would influence and shape that debate, but said it would ultimately take time for a new policy to emerge.

"The Democrats didn't win these elections because they had better ideas -- they had the least worst ideas. Within the Democrats there are a lot of cracks in foreign policy, especially over Iraq. One of the things to look at is whether they are going to be able to get consensus," said Williams.

Both Republicans and Democrats may also choose to wait for the results of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is due to release its recommendations on the future direction of American policy before the end of the year, before committing themselves to any concrete proposals of their own.

A leaked report by the group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, last month suggested its conclusions could include calling for the large-scale withdrawal of American troops and possibly inviting Iran and Syria to help in stabilizing the country.

"That's a heavyweight group and I think it would be wise to wait and see what comes out of it. It gives cover for what either party plans to do," said Williams.

"Although we've already seen a change in rhetoric over the last two weeks we haven't seen a change in policy. [Until then] you can expect to see more rhetoric but I highly doubt overall policy will change."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, set to become the first female speaker of the House, promises a "new direction" in Iraq.


SENATE Updated: 11:43 a.m. ET
33 at stake, 0 undecided
51 Dem, 50 GOP needed for majority
HOUSE Updated: 11:43 a.m. ET
435 at stake, 0 undecided
218 needed for majority
* Total for Senate Democrats includes two independents
Election Results Main Page
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