WASHINGTON — Three years on, the American public is surprised and dismayed about the length of the war in Iraq, and increasingly uncertain about its outcome.
That doesn't mean that a large majority want US troops to come home now, polls say. The public remains split as to whether the US-led invasion was the right thing to do.
But as Iraq has edged closer to civil war, attitudes have turned sharply negative, to the point where even administration supporters see more darkness, not light, at the end of the tunnel.
"I don't know anymore what the end product is going to be," says retired law-enforcement officer Ed Booth of Ocean Springs, Miss. "You have three factions who have been at each other's throats for centuries, so the answer may be to make a new Iraq - divided in three."
The steady stream of bad news, from suicide attacks to destroyed mosques to insurgent roadside bombings, may have numbed many in the United States to the situation in Iraq. What they want most is for it to go away.
"I'm sick of it. I'm sick of reading about it," says Anna Nicholas, a Boston studio photographer. "We need to start pulling out the second the Iraqis are standing on their own."
When US troops rolled over the border from Kuwait in 2003, the American public had a somewhat realistic view of the difficulties that lay ahead, say pollsters.
For instance, in April 2003, 84 percent of respondents said that rebuilding Iraq and establishing a government would be harder for the US than winning initial hostilities, according to a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll.
"Americans were under no illusions about this," concludes an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) summary of public opinion on Iraq.
Since then, public support has been on a long slide, except for two events that caused upward spikes: the capture of Saddam Hussein and the first round of Iraqi elections.
Since the turn of this year, that slide has tilted more sharply downward. In January, 46 percent of those surveyed thought things were going well in Iraq, while 53 percent said they were going badly, according to Gallup/CNN/USA Today. Last week, the same poll showed only 38 percent of respondents saying that things are going well, compared with 60 percent judging that things are going badly.
"It certainly is at a very low point," says AEI polling expert Karlyn Bowman of current public opinion.
This slide has occurred all across the country, in both men and women, and among all age groups.
Take the opinion of Chris Roche, a Wareham, Mass., teenager interviewed in Boston, where he's attending a student business conference. Well-dressed and well-spoken for his age, he says he backed the war at first. But today he sees things differently.
"There was no exact moment I stopped supporting the war," Chris says. "But over time I heard more stories about more people dying, and there were no weapons of mass destruction. I started to realize this wasn't right."
Kathy Hanson, a Boston-area retired pension actuary, is in favor of US troops coming home - not now, but soon. Still, she seems torn over the war and US goals for the region.
"I felt Saddam Hussein had to go," says Ms. Hanson. "But to destroy a country's infrastructure and risk so many lives seems wrong."
Thousands of miles further west, the story is much the same.
Jay Hochstedt works at a busy Phoenix bookstore. Fluent in French, he reads French newspapers online, as well as British ones, and Russian news in translation. He backed the first Gulf War, he says, at least initially. But he opposed the second one. He thinks it has isolated the US in the world, and split the US itself.
The nation "has never been this divided, at least in my lifetime ... to the point of no communication between the opposing forces," says Mr. Hochstedt. "Both sides have taken on a bunker mentality."
Other Arizonans say that whatever they felt about the war initially, the US is in Iraq now and needs to get the job done.
"That means more troops or whatever it takes to make sure it ends peacefully," says Sharlott Lewis, an employee at Papillon Antiques in Jerome, Ariz.
If nothing else, she adds, she has learned a lot about a part of the world of which she knew little. Like many Americans, the distinction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Kurds, to her has become a familiar one.
"I didn't realize there were so many factions," says Ms. Lewis.
Three years ago, men took a more optimistic view of the situation in Iraq than women did, but that gender gap has now almost disappeared. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 50 percent of men surveyed thought the US could establish a stable government in Iraq, down from 62 percent who thought so in December.
But one meaningful gap in US opinion persists, say pollsters, and it's political. The recent Pew poll found that 74 percent of Republicans think the US will succeed in Iraq, as opposed to only 34 percent of Democrats.
Among those who support the war effort, many still support it strongly.
In Pascagoula, Miss., home of the National Guard's 890th Combat Engineer Battalion armory, Charles Scott, a construction contractor from nearby Lucedale, has seen the war's impact up close. A friend from high school died in Iraq recently.
That even changed Mr. Scott's mind, slightly. "I was 100 percent behind the war and I'm 101 percent behind it now," he says. "I just want the public to follow through so the guys who died over there didn't die in vain."
According to this Mississippian, the war has played a major role in the failure of terrorists to strike at the US again. And it has united Americans in the sense that all are now more aware of assessing any threat to themselves or their neighborhoods.
As far as the war's impact on the American public, Scott acknowledges that the bad news from overseas is painful. But in the end, he says, "it's just publicity."
Opinion in the Midwest mirrors the rest of the country - it's split.
In Chicago, for instance, the dominant mood may be one of pessimism and uncertainty, but some people still express confidence.
As he browsed for videos at a Blockbuster in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, Billy Lampley said he still supported the war. Difficulties since the invasion were no reason for pessimism.
"When it comes to war there are always going to be surprises," he says. "You never know what's going to come up next."
He continues to support the war and President Bush, in part, because it is important "to show that America's going to take a stand for what it feels is right," he says.
Mr. Lampley's religious faith also plays a role: "When it comes down to it, I'm a Christian, and I believe that Bush is. And that's a reason I stand behind him also."
But Lampley, who said he checks news from Iraq every week or so, doesn't speculate on how events might unfold in the months or years to come.
"There's no way to say at this point, I don't believe," he says.
Around the corner at the Book Cellar bookstore, Shannon Rose is trying to look on the bright side.
"I'm a hopeless optimist that it will work out," says Ms. Rose, who opposed the start of the war three years ago. "Providing an outlet for democratic values, that's a good thing."
But it's unrealistic to expect that simply establishing the procedures of democratic government will lead to peace or true democracy, she adds. She points to the electoral victory of Hamas militants in last month's Palestinian elections.
"I think it's bleak," she says. "I think my son will have to deal with it his entire life, and that's sad."
A common dilemma for those who oppose the invasion is when to pull out troops now that the US has made the commitment in Iraq.
Chicagoan Richard Streetman says he remembers watching the war begin three years ago on a television in a bowling alley.
"I just had this visceral response," he recalls. "I watched them go in to attack and thought, 'This is insane.' "
His opposition to the war has not waned, but he is now resigned to a long American commitment in Iraq.
"We'll be there at some force level for a long, long, time," he says.