WASHINGTON — For the first time since the United States invaded Iraq three years ago, Republican leaders Thursday officially convened a full-scale debate over the war -- an effort that they hoped would showcase the increasingly divergent positions of the two parties and that wound up unleashing passions and acrimony on both sides.
Democrats denounced the debate in the House of Representatives as a sham, objecting to Republicans' characterization of debate on a nonbinding resolution on the war as a choice between "staying the course" and "cutting and running."
Republicans accused Democrats of indecision and division, repeatedly equating talk of withdrawal with retreat.
"Members, this is not the time to go wobbly. Let's give victory a chance," said Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.).
"This side is not trying to go wobbly," countered Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "We're trying to articulate what we think would be a better strategy for success in Iraq."
The rancor spilled over to the Senate, where Republican leaders forced a test vote on the idea of withdrawal in an effort to fan divisions among Democrats. The measure failed, 93 to 6.
"This sends a good message that the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly opposes a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whose ideas on withdrawal formed the basis for the Republican measure, denounced the maneuver as a "fibbing and fictitious vote." He said he was still working on his version of a withdrawal plan and would introduce it next week.
"I look forward to having a debate, but I look forward to having a debate on the amendment that I bring as a senator," Kerry said.
The long-postponed debate on Iraq comes four months before the midterm congressional elections, in which some strategists think sentiment for and against the war could determine which party emerges with a majority in Congress.
And it coincided with an announcement by the Pentagon that the number of U.S. personnel who have died in Iraq has reached 2,500. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) marked that milestone by calling for a moment of silence on the House floor in honor of the fallen.
"This nation is at a strategic crossroads," Skelton said. "We are spending $9 billion a month and have spent over $300 billion total on this war. More strikingly, we are losing a battalion's worth of casualties a month, killed and injured....
"We have been there some three years," he added. "I think it's time for us to seriously look at where we are, where we're going."
The Republican decision to allow debate on the war grew out of a confrontation last fall with Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who called for the start of troop withdrawals from Iraq.
In an effort to undermine Murtha's proposal, House Republicans forced a swift vote on a measure to "immediately" withdraw from Iraq. The motion failed, but drew vociferous complaints that it was the first time leaders had permitted discussion of the war in the House.
Until Thursday, the House had not formally debated military operations in Iraq since October 2002, when the chamber voted to authorize the use of force if Iraq failed to comply with United Nations demands. Six months later, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq.
An upsurge in violence and a perceived lack of progress in rebuilding the country politically and economically has sapped public support for the war.
All the same, many Republicans think that discussing the war works to their favor politically, allowing them to emphasize the assertion that Democrats are weak and indecisive on national security issues.
"Frankly, I believe their real challenge is that they have no common unified position on Iraq as a party," said Rep Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "Whether we are right or wrong on our side of the aisle, we do have a common position, and it's expressed in this resolution."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) outlined the GOP position in opening the debate. He spoke at length about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and asserted that the war in Iraq was an integral part of the campaign against terrorism that began that day.
"It is a battle we must endure and one in which we can and will be victorious," Hastert said. "The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores."
In an effort to force Democrats into an uncomfortable vote, Republican leaders -- including Hastert -- crafted a resolution that combined expressions of support for the troops and resolve in combating terrorism with a commitment to the engagement in Iraq. They also adopted rules that did not permit Democrats to offer amendments.
"It's really unfortunate, as the president contends that we are fighting for democracy in Iraq, that we can't have democracy on the House floor," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).