Finally, American voters care about Iraq

Seattle and Los Angeles are not cities that reflect wider public opinion in the United States. And yet, even on the generally liberal west coast, there are people and newspapers whose political and cultural sensibilities sit happily with the conservatism of George W Bush's Republican administration. But everywhere, they are turning against his policy on Iraq.

I was back in the US recently on a reporting assignment for the first time since the November 2004 pres idential elections, when Bush won his second term in office. The Democratic candidate John Kerry, a former Vietnam veteran, had put the issue of Iraq at the heart of his campaign. But he was hindered by what seemed to be an inconsistent record on the war: he initially voted in support of it, but then changed his mind and became an opponent. His inconsistency was exploited by Bush, though many people in the US and Britain had similar changes of heart, having begun to doubt that there had been any imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction - or that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would make everything better.

Back in 2004, however, a mere 18 months after the invasion, the disaster of the occupation was only just becoming apparent, and most ordinary Americans still thought that the insurgency was a passing phase, made up of nothing more than a tiny handful of Ba'athist desperadoes, and nothing to do with a rejuvenated al-Qaeda in Iraq. President Bush said of the insurgency: "Bring 'em on," and his vice-president, Dick Cheney went on national television and said the terror network was "in its death throes". He got the "death" bit right.

In November 2004, it was too early for Kerry to place Iraq at the centre of a national political argument before the American people. In Nov ember 2006, however, when Americans vote in the con gressional elections, its hour may come. Republican columnists, newspapers and congressmen are now realising how damaging the issue of Iraq has become, votes-wise. Yet the overwhelming concern is not how bad things are in Iraq. The most pressing worry is that Iraq is becoming inextricably linked, in the American mind, with the "war on terror", and that this has made the US more vulnerable and threatened.

The CIA report leaked on 24 September which claimed that the war in Iraq had galvanised and strengthened Islamist radicals and violent groups, especially al-Qaeda, was a milestone ideologically and militarily. Yet there have been earlier acknowledgements of the link, and some senior Republicans have broken with the Bush White House in an attempt to distance themselves from the admin istration. Senator John McCain and others rebelled, for example, over the military's use of torture and the running of Guantanamo Bay.

The realisation that the mission in Afghan istan is unravelling and that the Taliban are not just coming back, but are actually in control in parts of the south of the country, leaves many Americans incredulous. There are other factors in the mix, naturally, but the end result is the same: there is a sense that the wider American public is fast approaching a political tipping point over Iraq.

This is no longer just part of the "Beltway" chatter between journalists and politicians. It connects directly with your average Joe in Iowa. The war in Iraq is on Main Street America in a way no other war of the past 25 years has been, and this is largely on account of the huge numbers of National Guardsmen from each American state fighting and dying in Iraq.

The part-time soldiers of the National Guard and Reserves are normally deployed on hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters during peacetime. The "war on terror" has changed all that. There are more National Guard troops on active duty now than at any time since the Second World War. The war in Iraq has claimed by far the largest proportion of deaths from the National Guard and Reserve of any US conflict so far: fatalities among its troops represent between 15 and 20 per cent of the monthly total since the invasion. In this way, Iraq reaches into every conservative, religious Midwestern state. Look at the local papers from these places and you find notices of young local Guardsmen killed or maimed in Iraq.

The mood is changing in America. I don't get the sense that there is any way to turn this around. People are finding it harder and harder to see any tan gible benefits for anyone - Iraqis or Americans - in this bloody conflict.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act