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by Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2003 at 7:54 AM
Public support for President Bush has dropped sharply amid growing concerns about U.S. military casualties and doubts whether the war with Iraq was worth fighting, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Bush's overall job approval rating dropped to 59 percent, down nine points in the past 18 days. That decline exactly mirrored the slide in public support for Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, which now stands at 58 percent.
Six in 10 said it damaged the image of the United States abroad, and half said the conflict caused permanent damage to U.S. relations with France, Germany and other allies who opposed the war.
And for the first time, slightly more than half the country -- 52 percent -- believes there has been an "unacceptable" level of U.S. casualties in Iraq, up eight points in less than three weeks.
Still, only 26 percent said there had been more casualties than they had expected. Three in four say they expect "significantly more" American dead and wounded.
The poll found that seven in 10 Americans believe the United States should continue to keep troops in Iraq, even if it means additional casualties. That view was shared by majorities of Republicans, Democrats and political independents.
A majority of the country -- 57 percent -- still consider the war with Iraq to have been worth the sacrifice. That's down 7 percentage points from a Post-ABC News poll in late June, and 13 points since the war ended 10 weeks ago.
Taken together, the latest survey findings suggest that the mix of euphoria and relief that followed the quick U.S. victory in Iraq continues to dissipate, creating an uncertain and volatile political environment. The risks are perhaps most obvious for Bush, whose continued high standing with the American people has been fueled largely by his handling of the war on terrorism and, more recently, the war in Iraq.
On the domestic front, meanwhile, fewer than half the nation approves of Bush's handling of the economy.
The poll found that the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has sharply divided the country. Fifty percent said Bush intentionally exaggerated evidence suggesting Iraq had such weapons, while nearly as many -- 46 percent -- disagreed.
"If we have the capability of finding out that Joe Blow No-Name has dodged his taxes for the past 10 years, why don't we have the capability of . . . finding a foolproof method of finding out whether the intelligence we gather is accurate and making it rock-solid before we jump into another situation?" said James Pike, 41, an auto mechanic from Ogdensburg, N.Y.
Earlier this week, Bush administration officials acknowledged that the president should not have claimed in the State of the Union speech that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from African countries in a bid to build nuclear weapons.
The survey also found that Americans are divided over whether the United States should send troops to Liberia to help enforce a cease-fire in that West African nation's civil war, a move the Bush administration is considering. Fifty-one percent opposed sending troops to Liberia as part of a broader peacekeeping operation, while 41 percent favored the idea.
"I don't really know that we have any business there," said Penny Tarbert, 50, who is disabled and lives in Bucyrus, Ohio. "They've been fighting this [civil war] for a long time. I think we've got ourselves in enough right now that we don't need to be spreading ourselves any thinner."
An overwhelming majority of Americans -- 80 percent -- said they fear the United States will become bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission in Iraq, up eight points in less than three weeks.
"I'm worried about how long we're going to be there," said Betty Stillwell, 71, a writer from central California. "We were supposed to be in there and out. By now I thought they would have set up a government, and they haven't done that yet. . . . I think the whole thing was poorly planned, no thought to the aftermath."
Despite broad doubts and growing concerns, few Americans say it's time for the troops to come home. Three in four support the current U.S. presence in Iraq -- a view shared by large majorities of Republicans (89 percent), Democrats (60 percent) and political independents (75 percent).
The number of U.S. casualties, while troubling to many, has not outstripped most people's expectations. One in four said there had been more casualties than they had anticipated, while 36 percent said there had been fewer and 37 percent said it was about what they had expected.
"I don't think any [casualties] are acceptable, but they're necessary," said Chris Eldridge, 29, an electronics technician from Louisville. "They're a lot lower than I expected. I expected there would be more during the initial fighting. I expected a lot more killed. Fortunately there hasn't been."
Danny Buckner, 53, a Navy retiree who lives in Brownwood, Tex., had a somewhat different view. "Considering we are having a cease-fire we sure are losing a lot of lives," he said. "They're killing us right and left. I don't know what the deal is."
The poll suggests growing public belief that the United States must kill or capture Saddam Hussein for the war to be successful. A 61 percent majority now believe Hussein must be found, up 11 points since April. That view was shared by roughly similar majorities of Republicans, Democrats and political independents.
"It would be nice if we could find Saddam Hussein and get it over with," said Susan Leidich, 39, a homemaker from Birch Run, Mich. "It seems like if the military leaves, it could be like Desert Storm [the 1991 Persian Gulf War], and then Saddam Hussein would take right back over."
The survey suggests that most Americans believe the recent war produced mixed results. Six in 10 said it damaged the image of the United States abroad, and half said the conflict caused permanent damage to U.S. relations with France, Germany and other allies who opposed the war. The public was equally divided whether the war contributed to long-term peace and stability in the Middle East.
But seven in 10 said the war helped improve the lives of the Iraqi people. And six in 10 said it contributed to the long-term security of the United States.
A total of 1,006 randomly selected adults were interviewed July 9 and 10. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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