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US public's support of Iraq war sliding faster now

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Mr. Fraser did not vote for Bush in either election. But on the eve of the Iraq war, he found himself cautiously optimistic that the invasion would take care of a troubled situation left unresolved from Operation Desert Storm. And Colin Powell's presentation before the United Nations stirred up anxieties lingering from 9/11, he said in a phone interview.

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"The absence of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was the first chink in the armor," says Fraser. "Once you start to question that, then you begin to question other things, like was Al Qaeda sitting at the right arm of Saddam Hussein? You just began to wonder, is everything you're hearing the truth?"

Failure to find WMDs also affected Frank Hilts, a retired cop from Stone Mountain, Ga. Early in the war Mr. Hilts believed that invading Iraq not only was morally right, but also that it was crucial for national security and the war on terror.

After it became clear that no major caches of WMDs would be found in Iraq, Hilts, an independent who voted for Bush in 2000, went from cautious support to outright calls for impeachment, for shielding the "real" reasons for going to war as well as for mishandling the operation.

The view that the Bush administration deliberately misled the public about WMDs has become more pervasive over the course of the war and is now held by 54 percent of the public, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll this month.

"It isn't really our war anymore," says Hilts, adding that Americans are now stuck refereeing a civil war.

Good news from Iraq has boosted support for the war at different junctures – although temporarily. The capture of Mr. Hussein, elections, and the killing of the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, all caused spikes in war support.

The spikes, say analysts, represent public reevaluation of either the costs or the benefits of the war, or both. Support rose after the first Iraqi election in January 2005. Voter turnout exceeded expectations, boosting Americans' optimism about the prospects for democracy in Iraq.

Optimism about progress plays a big role in the public's weighing of a war's costs and benefits, says Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University professor who studies US public opinion and the use of force.

"The rising costs [of war] matter a lot, if you're not making a lot of progress. The rising costs matter less if you are making a lot of progress," says Professor Gelpi. "There have been a few good events that have punctuated the scene from time to time, but that has all occurred against a steady backdrop of bad news all the time."

Until recently, the war's true believers have not been affected much by that steady drumbeat of bad news.

"Those who think the war is a good idea have a much more optimistic notion of the progress on the ground than those who don't," says Jacobson at UC San Diego. "But among Republicans ... optimism has really slid dramatically since September."

The share of Republicans who say the war is going well has fallen from 77 percent to 51 percent over the past year, according to Pew. That decline in Republicans' optimism spells trouble, according to Gelpi's model, for future support levels of the war.

Others look at the very short-term impact of good news in Iraq and suggest that the rising toll – in the form of casualties – plays a more decisive factor. But the White House can take little comfort in this view, too, because modern US history shows that war support declines over time as casualties mount.

The public-opinion trend lines for the wars in Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea follow a remarkably similar pattern, notes John Mueller, author of "War, Presidents, and Public Opinion." The Iraq war has seen many fewer casualties than the other conflicts, yet public backing has fallen by about the same amount. To Dr. Mueller, that's evidence that the American public values the Iraq conflict less than previous wars.