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Changes in Mideast blunt Bush's critics

WASHINGTON -- A dramatic string of positive developments in the Middle East in recent weeks seems to have deflated fierce criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, one of the most strident opponents of the administration, said yesterday that President Bush deserved credit for what seems to be a tentative awakening of democracy in the region.

''What's taken place in a number of those countries is enormously constructive," the Massachusetts Democrat said on the ABC news program ''This Week."

''It's a reflection the president has been involved."

As recently as six weeks ago, in a speech at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Kennedy was far more confrontational.

''We have reached the point that a prolonged American military presence in Iraq is no longer productive for either Iraq or the United States," he said, calling for a phased US withdrawal and comparing the ongoing involvement in Iraq with the quagmire the United States found itself in a generation ago in Vietnam.

But yesterday, Kennedy's comments, in both tone and content, amounted to a striking recalibration of his earlier stance.

While Kennedy reiterated his earlier call for an eventual US troop pullout, his language was milder and less urgent. He emphasized that any timetable for withdrawal needed first to be agreed upon with the Iraq's new government.

''That's the direction we want to go," Kennedy said. ''It does seem to me that we want the Iraqis to know it is their country. They've demonstrated that with the election."

Another influential Democrat, assistant Senate minority leader Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, also set aside his past differences with the administration over the invasion of Iraq, which he called ''the wrong decision at that moment," to agree yesterday that this same decision had brought signs of democratization in the region that could be enormously beneficial to the United States.

''I think there is a momentum for positive change in the Middle East, and I think the Democrats support that," Durbin said on the NBC program ''Meet the Press."

Although both senators cautioned against reading too much into events in the region, neither said anything that could be construed as critical of the administration's current policy there. Still, Kennedy made note of the continuing casualties in Iraq, where about 1,500 service members have died since the beginning of the conflict in March 2003.

''We still have a long ways to go," Kennedy said. ''Two Americans are still getting killed every single day."

The senators' overall comments underscore a far broader shift of mood on Capitol Hill about the Iraq war and the administration's Middle East policy that has occurred since Kennedy's Jan. 27 speech.

The deepening pessimism and frustration about developments in Iraq -- which had spread well beyond the Democrats into the ranks of moderate Republican legislators -- has given way to a sense of cautious optimism, according to those who work in Congress.

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