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The World | THE TIMES POLL

U.S. Future in Iraq a Growing Concern

November 21, 2003|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Americans of every stripe are worried that the U.S. occupation of Iraq could turn into a quagmire, and most are unconvinced that President Bush has a clear plan to handle the problem, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

But voters' concerns about the war do not necessarily translate into support for Bush's Democratic rivals in the 2004 presidential campaign, the poll found. Despite their misgivings, a narrow majority of respondents said they still trusted Bush to make the right decisions on Iraq, and a solid majority gave him high marks for his conduct of the war on terrorism.

Overall, most appear deeply unhappy about Iraq and uncertain that Bush's strategy is succeeding -- but they also are willing to give him more time to try.

"My biggest fear is: Is this thing going to end up being like Vietnam?" said Alan Geleske, 50, of Michigan City, Ind., one of 1,345 adults questioned in the nationwide poll. "It doesn't seem like there are any clear-cut objectives ... and the casualty list is growing. It's a concern. I have a son and a son-in-law in the Army."

On the other hand, Geleske said, "I haven't seen any Democratic candidate I can get behind ... and I do admire what Bush did when 9/11 occurred." He said he hadn't decided how he would vote next year; "it's too early."

The distress over casualties has driven many who supported the invasion of Iraq in the spring to question whether it was worth the cost. Only about a third of the public now believes it was worth the loss of so many military lives, the poll found.

Still, a large majority said they supported keeping U.S. troops in Iraq at least until order is restored; only about a fifth said they favored an unconditional withdrawal.

"Nobody likes to see all those servicemen being killed," said Stephanie Weber, 88, a retired railroad employee in Ingleside, Ill. "I don't think [Bush] has a clear plan.... But under the circumstances, he's doing the best he can." Weber, who said she voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, now plans to vote for Bush in 2004 -- "because he's been so dogged about getting after the terrorists."

The president said Thursday he was determined to keep U.S. troops in Iraq -- and to increase their number, if necessary -- until his goals are met. "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq, what is ever necessary to secure Iraq," Bush told reporters in London.

In April, as U.S. forces swept into Iraq, the Times Poll found 77% of the public said they supported the decision to go to war.

But this week, when asked whether it had been worth going to war, only 48% said yes; 43% said no. Underlying that relatively even split is a marked partisan divide: Only 30% of Democrats now say the war was worthwhile, compared with 76% of Republicans.

The fear of a long military entanglement cuts across political boundaries, but with a partisan gap as well. Asked how they felt about the possibility that the United States could become "bogged down" in Iraq, 86% of all respondents said they were concerned, and most said they were "very concerned." But Democrats expressed more concern than Republicans.

Opinions of Bush's handling of the Iraq issue are even more closely divided and polarized along partisan lines, the poll found. A narrow majority of all respondents, 53%, said they trusted Bush and his advisors to make the right decisions on Iraq, as opposed to 41% who said they did not. But among Republicans, 86% said they trusted Bush to make the right decisions; only 27% of Democrats agreed.

Likewise, about half of all respondents, 52%, said they did not believe Bush had a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, while 39% said he did have a clear plan. But underneath those numbers is another deep partisan divide: 73% of Republicans say Bush has a clear plan, but only 19% of Democrats agree.

In that sense, only seven months after U.S. troops seized Baghdad in a war that won broad support, the toll of combat has redivided the public.

On one side is Paul Evans, a retired garage owner in Bradenton, Fla.: "You can't walk in, destroy a government and say, 'See you later.' ... I believe he's trying to do a good job."

On the other side is Rose Petri of St. Louis, who voted for Bush but regrets it: "We have no strategy, we have no plan, we have no allies, and we have no time limit to bring our kids home. I'll vote for whoever the Democrat is [in 2004]. If it's a frog, I'll vote for him."

Bush has retained broader support for his leadership in the global campaign against terrorism. Among all respondents, 59% said they approve of the way the president is handling the war on terrorism and 35% disapprove. Among Democrats, 42% approve and 50% disapprove -- Bush's best showing among Democrats on any major issue.

As for the future in Iraq, the public appears divided and uncertain.

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