The US death toll in Iraq hit 2,500 on Thursday as Republicans and Democrats in Congress faced off over the Iraq war just months ahead of the crucial November midterm elections.

House lawmakers engaged in a heated debate over whether the US should set a timetable to pull troops out of Iraq ahead of a scheduled vote today. The Senate, meanwhile, voted 93-6 to reject a measure sponsored by Senator John Kerry calling on the US to leave Iraq this year.

The rancorous debates come as the White House attempts to boost support for the war. The US public is increasingly sceptical about the three-year-long conflict that has caused the deaths of 2,500 US troops and an estimated tens of thousands of Iraqis. The US has also suffered about 18,500 non-fatal casualties in Iraq, and has lost 295 soldiers in Afghanistan.

A recent ABC/Washington Post poll – conducted before the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a US air strike – showed that more than 60 per cent of respondents disapprove of President George W. Bush’s handling of the war, and believe the decision to invade Iraq has not benefited the US.

The White House has been buoyed since last week by Zarqawi’s death and the long-awaited appointment by the Iraqi government of ministers of defence and interior, considered crucial to putting down the insurgency and stamping out violence by sectarian militias.

Republicans said Iraq was the “central front” in the war on terror, and accused Democrats of being weak on national security. Dennis Hastert, the Republican House speaker, said the House resolution was about “a global war to protect American ideals”, which was necessary to demonstrate Congressional resolve in the anti-terrorism campaign.

But Democrats countered that the Republicans were misleadingly conflating Iraq with the war on terror for political advantage. Democrats are hoping that public malaise over Iraq will translate into them winning control of one or both houses of Congress in November.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat leader in the House, lambasted the administration’s handling of the war, saying it was a “grotesque mistake”. She has joined a campaign spearheaded by John Murtha, the Pennsylvania congressman and former marine with close ties to the Pentagon, calling on Mr Bush to withdraw troops as soon as possible. They argue that US troops are acting as a magnet for violence, and say Iraq must take over its own security.

The US military yesterday said they believed the self-appointed successor to Zarqawi was an Egyptian called Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who attended al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and was a key Zarqawi lieutenant.

After returning from a surprise visit to Iraq on Wednesday, President George W. Bush stressed that he would not make decisions in Iraq for political reasons. The Pentagon had been hoping to reduce the number of US troops from about 130,000 to 100,000 by the end of the year, but such reductions may now be less likely.

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