Public's views on Iraq war barely budge

Bush's speech on Iraq and Petraeus's progress report on the 'surge' swayed few Americans, polls show.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Florida, retiree Robert Lacey says he believes the US military "surge" in Iraq has failed. Iraqi politicians were supposed to take advantage of increased security to settle their differences peacefully, and "that hasn't happened," he notes.

San Diego saleswoman Connie Howard agrees. Her father, husband, and son all have served in the military, and her son-in-law, a marine, is set for an Iraq tour, but she still judges the war a folly. "I don't want to see any of them go," she says of troops on their way to Iraq. "It's enough."

But Doug Brown, a Lockheed Martin employee from Buffalo, N.Y., says US troops need to stay the course. "If we pull out now, everything we've done will collapse and we'll have to go back in again 10 years from now," he says.

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The American public long ago reached a verdict regarding Iraq, and, for the Bush administration, it isn't a reassuring one. Most US voters have little confidence in the administration's Iraq strategy – though the White House does retain a core of committed support.

So far there is little evidence that President Bush's speech to the nation Sept. 13, or last week's testimony by the top US commander and the top US diplomat in Iraq explaining the outcome of the surge , changed matters. A CBS News poll released Monday found 63 percent of respondents judged that things are going badly in Iraq, while only 34 percent said they are going well – about the same percentage split as before Mr. Bush's address.

More than half of respondents to the CBS survey said the surge of additional US troops, which began in January, has had no impact.

A long, slow slide in support

The conflict in Iraq has now gone on so long that most Americans have had time to make up their minds about it, say opinion experts. While speeches and other events have caused upward blips in the polls in the past, in general public attitudes have shown a long, slow slide.

"Americans' perceptions of the situation in Iraq have steadily worsened since the outset of the war," writes Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in the most recent edition of her ongoing survey of public opinion and Iraq.

Take Maria Alessandro, a restaurant manager from Margate, Fla. She says she at first supported Bush and the war. "But the longer we are there, the worse it's been," she says.

Ms. Alessandro saw some of Gen. David Petraeus's testimony before Congress last week, and she thought the commander of multinational forces in Iraq seemed credible. Still, she is not sure everything he said was correct.

Alessandro wonders how well the US surge can be working – as General Petraeus contends it is – if bombs are still exploding in Baghdad and US and Iraqi troops are still being killed.

"It's clear the surge wasn't the success they wanted it to be," she says.

Doubts about Iraqi government

The US public also remains wary of the Iraqi government itself. Americans appear to have taken to heart Washington's message that Iraq's politicians have fallen short of their political goals, whatever the military results of the troop surge.

"I think it's hands down that Iraq is a failed state at this point," says Kristen Schaer, a barber shop coordinator in Boston.

Perhaps democracy is not the right form of government for Iraq, says Ms. Schaer, whose father is in the military. The US may have placed too much emphasis on trying to keep religion out of Iraqi politics, she adds.

"They need a government that works for them," says Schaer. "Whether that is secular or not doesn't matter."

Overall, the American electorate has become polarized as to whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do, writes Ms. Bowman of the think tank AEI.

In an AP/Ipsos poll taken earlier this month, 57 percent of respondents said the US made a mistake in going to war in Iraq, for instance. Only 37 percent said it was the right decision.

The public's judgment of the president's handling of the war remains a harsh one. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found only 30 percent of respondents approved of Bush's performance on Iraq.

But there was some good news for the White House in the NBC survey. That 30 percent rating represents an improvement from July, when only 22 percent of respondents approved of presidential Iraq policies. And Bush retains a core of convinced support, small though it may be.

"We might as well fight it over there," says Christie McHan, a civilian employee of the Navy based in San Diego.

"I believe we should continue and win the war against terrorism," says Lauri Hanson of Alexandria, Minn. "It means keeping the troops there and persevering until the president feels that Iraqis can stand by themselves."

While most Americans want troops to start coming home, the public as a whole is not in favor of an immediate pullout.

In the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a plurality of 37 percent of respondents said some troops should remain in the region for the long term, to try to prevent violence from spreading.

In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Sept. 13, 22 percent of respondents said the US should pull out all troops immediately. Forty-two percent said troops should leave gradually, and 24 percent said they should leave only after the Iraqis are capable of providing their own security.

"For humanitarian reasons, we can't leave," says Steven Jorgensen, a potato farmer from Moses Lake, Wash. "Whether we like it or not, we're peacekeepers. It's a mess, an absolute mess, but because of who we are, we have to take a stand."

Voters also seem to be looking to the 2008 presidential election as a defining moment for the US presence in Iraq, with the expectation that Bush is unlikely to reverse his own course.

"The American public is just waiting for the next election," says Daniel Silva, a Boston hospital worker. "But that's a pretty long time."

Randy Dotinga in San Diego, Jenna Fisher in Boston, and Richard Luscombe in Miami contributed to this report.

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