As fatalities rise, will support wane?

With six British casualties Tuesday, troop deaths in Iraq keep climbing - and American public patience ebbs a bit.

Every morning, Americans wake up to the possibility that, yet again, one of their own has been killed in Iraq. Since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major hostilities, at least 55 US troops have died in Iraq, either under attack or by accident - more than a third of the US death toll during the war.

It is a subject that makes administration officials uneasy. They know that American military deaths in Iraq could sap public support for the US role there, and eventually precipitate an early withdrawal. The question, for a White House as sensitive as any to public opinion, is how long the drip, drip, drip of US casualties can continue without major erosion of support for US policy.

Public concern is beginning to register. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday shows a decline in the percentage of Americans who believe the US casualty figures are "acceptable," from two-thirds in early April to about half now.

"There were three reasons for going to war: weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and humanitarian. If the first two don't hold water, then you're left with basically a humanitarian adventure," says John Mueller, an expert on the politics of war at Ohio State University. "People are willing to do that, but the question is how many American lives is it worth. That question is going to be asked more and more."

Despite the growing concern about US casualties - and despite the deaths of six more British soldiers near Amarah Tuesday - Bush doesn't appear in danger of losing the American public anytime soon. His overall approval ratings remain strong, in the low to mid 60s; the Post poll showed support for his handling of Iraq at 67 percent - down from 75 percent in late April but still strong.

The Post poll also showed that Americans haven't lost their taste for preemptive military action, registering 56 percent approval for using force to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Other Iraq controversies - namely, questions about weapons of mass destruction, US intelligence, and the location of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein - have distracted attention from the almost daily American deaths in Iraq. Deep divisions within the Democratic Party - particularly among its presidential candidates - have also hindered formation of a unified message on Iraq that could galvanize public opinion against the US role there.

Three key US senators recently visited Iraq on a fact-finding mission, and came back with a stark message: that, realistically, the US will need to maintain a major commitment of forces and economic resources in Iraq for at least three to five years. The senators from the Foreign Relations Committee, chairman Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, and Joe Biden (D) of Delaware, all reiterated support for the US effort, while calling on Bush to be more open with his timeline for Iraq.

In reply, the White House repeated its stance that it's impossible to pin a time frame on rebuilding and that troops will stay "as long as necessary, but not a day longer."

The senators also spoke to the need to determine the fate of Saddam Hussein and his sons. Hussein loyalists are thought to be behind some of the attacks on Americans in Iraq, and if Hussein were captured or found dead, that could help Iraq move on and possibly reduce American casualties.

Experts on US opinion on foreign policy warn against overinterpreting a decline in what Americans consider an "acceptable" level of casualties. Despite some politicians' remarks, the Vietnam syndrome isn't about to return.

The latest poll "reflects something about how people feel the operation is going," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. "It doesn't reflect an emerging urge for the US to withdraw from Iraq. The public is pretty committed to staying there and resolving the situation; we've committed a lot of resources and blood. They're not going to casually walk away."

One of the many unknowns in Iraq is the size of opposition to the US presence. If Hussein were found and determined absolutely powerless, that could create a greater sense of freedom and perhaps boost public support for the US effort. Americans are sensitive to the idea of expending effort for people who don't want US help.

Another unknown is how the American public would react to a major attack on US forces in Iraq, such as the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 or the infamous "Black Hawk down" incident in Mogadishu. Again, in Iraq, such an event would not necessarily guarantee massive cries for a pullout and could in fact stiffen American resolve.

Opinion experts emphasize the role of context. The challenge for the White House, amid continuing casualties, is to stress any successes officials can find in building an independent, self-sufficient Iraq.

"For now, it is seen as successful and worthwhile," says Mr. Kull. "I see nothing on the horizon that could make the public want to turn against it.... [But] if things continue to go poorly, and we continue to take casualties, with time that could change."

The question that no one can answer is when, or if, that tipping point might occur.

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