Public divisions remain deep and fixed over war

Several factors are holding up support that differentiate Iraq from past conflicts.

Lately, the news out of Iraq has been significant - and sobering: Last month was the second deadliest yet for American troops in Iraq, with 134 confirmed fatalities. Leading up to Thanksgiving weekend, Americans watched a successful - albeit costly - offensive in Fallujah unfold on their television sets. With calls mounting for next month's scheduled election to be postponed, the US now plans to increase troops to the highest levels since the invasion.

Yet so far, American attitudes toward the war appear to have barely budged, suggesting that the same basic divisions that emerged over Iraq during the presidential campaign could in fact hold for some time to come. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 51 percent of Americans believe the US did not make a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, while 47 percent think it did - numbers that have hardly moved at all since the beginning of October.

Of course, some Americans may be waiting to see what happens with the Iraqi election, with the success or failure of that event shaping opinion in the weeks that follow. It's also possible that as the nation moves further away from the polarizing atmosphere of the presidential campaign, attitudes toward the war will move as well.

Yet to many experts, the stability of public opinion in recent weeks has been striking - suggesting Americans have hunkered down into two hardened camps, with those opposing the war unlikely to be won over, and those favoring it allowing President Bush a fair amount of leeway in continuing his policies, at least for a while.

"I've been surprised there hasn't been more erosion [of support] during the past few months," says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University.

The lack of decline, he says, probably reflects the fact that the pro-war camp has already been shrunk down to the most ardent supporters - people who are unlikely to change their minds unless the number of casualties escalates dramatically. "It tends to take a greater number of casualties to decrease support as time goes by, because you get down to the harder-core supporters," he says.

Certainly, overall support for the war has dropped dramatically since the invasion, falling some 20 or 30 points, according to various surveys. Currently, Dr. Mueller notes, it's roughly comparable to support for the war in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive. But while public opinion on Iraq could grow more negative in coming months, depending on how events unfold, there are also factors holding it up - and differentiating this war from previous foreign incursions.

One of the most significant, experts say, was that the US had a presidential campaign in the middle of it, in which the incumbent was actively campaigning on his war record - something that didn't happen during Vietnam or Korea, for example. In many ways, Iraq was the dominant issue in the campaign - with the two candidates sparring repeatedly over the war, and the fact that Bush prevailed serving as something of a mandate to continue his policies there.

"Iraq affected the election, but I would say the election also affected Iraq," says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University.

Bush's victory "bought him a much larger window than Kerry would have had," had he won the election, Professor Feaver says. Had Kerry prevailed, he probably would have faced immediate pressure from antiwar supporters to begin pulling US troops out, even though polls show a slim majority of Americans favor leaving troops in Iraq until a stable government is established.

On the other hand, Mueller suggests, the presidential campaign may have also pushed some Bush backers into a more strongly supportive position on Iraq than they would otherwise have adopted - since Bush was so closely identified with the war throughout the campaign.

"If that's the case," he says, "you'd expect to see more of a decline" as the election recedes.

One of the biggest differences between Iraq and past wars like Vietnam, however, is that many Americans don't see it as an isolated conflict - but as part of the larger war on terrorism, a connection Bush sought to emphasize throughout the campaign. Polls have consistently shown high public support for Bush's leadership in the war on terror, a factor that may have helped prop up support for him on Iraq as well, though his ratings on that conflict are significantly lower.

According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans approve of Bush's handling of terrorism by a sizable margin, with 59 percent approving and 37 percent disapproving. But the numbers are almost reversed on Iraq, with 40 percent approving and 55 percent disapproving. When asked if Iraq is part of the war on terror, 43 percent of Americans said it was either a major or minor part, while 51 percent said it was not.

Americans also regard the war on terror as a long-term struggle, which may foster greater patience for the situation in Iraq as well.

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