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Going to War Not Worth It, More Voters Say

Support has slipped in the last six months. Still, a wide majority does not want to set a specific date for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

June 11, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Most U.S. voters now say it was not worth going to war in Iraq, but an overwhelming majority reject the idea of setting a deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country, according to a Times poll.

Though the survey found voters increasingly worried that America was becoming ensnarled in Iraq and pessimistic that a democratic government would take root, less than one in five said America should withdraw all its forces within weeks. And less than one in four endorsed the idea advanced by some Democratic-leaning foreign policy experts and liberal groups to establish a specific date for withdrawal.

"I never thought we should go to war in Iraq," said Anne Wardwell, a retired museum curator in Cleveland who responded to the poll. "But I think we have to see it through, because if we don't it is going to be a disaster in the region."

The survey also showed widespread concern that the war had damaged America's image in the world, a strong desire to see NATO take the lead in managing the conflict, and deep division over whether President Bush could rally more international support for the rebuilding effort.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,230 registered voters from Saturday through Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Anxiety over the war's direction and reluctance to abandon the cause in Iraq radiated through the responses.

Most voters retained faith that the U.S. could control the military situation in the country. About half of those polled -- 52% -- said they thought the U.S. was winning the war; 24% said the insurgents were winning.

But voters were uncertain about the prospects of achieving broader goals in Iraq. Just 35% said the U.S. was "making good progress in Iraq," while 61% said they thought the U.S. was "getting bogged down." Three-fifths of independents and more than four-fifths of Democrats shared the sense that the effort was stalling.

But a majority of Republicans, like Rosemary Wolfram of Cincinnati, see progress occurring. "I think we see some light at the end of the tunnel on the war," said Wolfram, a legal assistant.

Noting that an Iraqi interim government is preparing to assume sovereignty June 30, she added, "That is going in the right direction."

In perhaps the most emphatic measure of anxiety about Iraq, 53% said they did not think the situation there merited the war; 43% said it did. When Times polls asked that question in November and March, the numbers were essentially reversed.

In the latest survey, more than four-fifths of Republicans viewed the war as justified, while more than four-fifths of Democrats and 54% of independents said it was not.

"Since there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I have doubts that it was worth it, especially considering the amount of resentment and distrust that this has caused, not only with our allies but in the whole Muslim world," said Ray Luechtefeld, a professor at the University of Missouri.

The poll underscores how attitudes about the war loom as a dividing line in the presidential election. Among those who think the threat from Iraq justified war, Bush leads Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, 83% to 13%. Among those who think the war was not justified, Kerry leads, 84% to 11%.

Expectations are limited for the Iraqi interim government. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said they did not think the interim government would be able to govern the country without help from the U.S. and its allies.

And many are pessimistic that the Iraqis can sustain a democratic government: 38% think it is likely Iraq will maintain a democracy after the U.S.-led coalition forces leave, while 49% consider it unlikely.

Nearly three-fifths said Bush's Iraq policies had hurt America's image abroad; one in five thought they had improved attitudes toward the U.S.

Such concerns have eroded confidence in Bush's management of the war. Just 44% said they approved of Bush's handling of the war; in March, that figure was 51%. In the new poll, 35% said he had outlined a clear plan to succeed in Iraq.

Asked about his handling of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, 41% approved and 37% disapproved.

Kerry has faced criticism from some in his party for not offering a more distinct alternative to Bush's Iraq policy. In a sign that Kerry's position is murky to many voters, the poll found 15% said he had offered a clear plan on how to handle the situation, while 34% said he had not, and the rest did not know.

But another question pointed to the opening for Kerry created by doubts about Bush's direction. Voters split almost in half when asked if they accepted Kerry's contention that Bush had lost so much credibility around the world that only a new president could "rally the support of U.S. allies to help stabilize Iraq."

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