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US public's support of Iraq war sliding faster now

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2007


Support among Americans for the Iraq war began to slip just weeks after US troops breached Baghdad and toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein. But since last fall, the downward slope has become precipitous, with doubts spreading from Democrats and independents into the Republican core of support.

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As the nation takes stock of a war it embarked on four years ago Tuesday, those who regret that decision now outnumber supporters by 14 percentage points. Accelerating the slide, say opinion analysts, were bipartisan criticisms of US war policy by the Iraq Study Group and concerns that the mission has been obscured by civil war.

To some, the tumble in support simply shows weak knees, a lack of resolve in the American character. To others, it suggests a fall-off in trust of the Bush administration.

Opinion analysts, though, give a more nuanced picture, noting that the public is continually reevaluating the stakes in Iraq – and assessing whether the costs of sticking with the fight have become higher than the stakes are worth.

It's a calculation with which Kathy Gier of Hutchinson, Kan., is all too familiar.

"I think a civil war is going on there, and it makes me profoundly sad," says Ms. Gier, a Republican. Some 55 percent of Republicans have come to the same conclusion on civil war, according to a Harris Poll in January.

This mother of three speaks supportively of her daughter's past service in Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot. "I was more adamant [that the war] was the right thing when she was there," she says during a phone interview.

But Gier no longer sees the wisdom of the invasion, a change of heart that came slowly and imperceptibly. "I thought it was the right the thing to do for a really long, long time, and I think it's pretty evident that it didn't work," she says, though she holds out hope for a "limited democratic process" and doesn't want to abandon the government there.

On the eve of the conflict, Gier had reservations about the reasons for going to war. "I supported the president's decision because I kept thinking that he must know more than we do."

Democrats and independents with similar doubts before the war trusted President Bush far less, making support from both groups softer. But the partisan divide in public opinion – evident almost from the war's onset – has also helped Mr. Bush carry those who trust his leadership through evolving justifications for the war, says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

"There's a huge partisan division on the war, and it's far larger for this war than for any previous military engagement going back to World War II," says Dr. Jacobson.

Republicans form a large majority of the 40 percent of Americans who stand by the decision to go to war, versus the 54 percent who do not, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington. Until recently, GOP support has held fairly steady in the face of the long exodus of independents and the early departure of Democrats.

In an address Monday, Bush urged Americans to be patient. The mission to help the Iraqi government secure its capital will take months, and fewer than half the troop reinforcements being sent have arrived in Baghdad, he said.

The presidential plea isn't likely to carry much weight with Keith Fraser, a Demo- crat whose support for the war faded long ago. "I wasn't a strong believer for very long, probably that first year," says Mr. Fraser, a retired naval officer in Swanzey, N.H. "I really look back upon it as being a very naive time for me."