WASHINGTON — Support for the war in Iraq has continued to erode, but most Americans still are inclined to give the Bush administration some time to try to stabilize the country before it withdraws U.S. troops, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
The poll, conducted Saturday through Monday, found that the percentage of Americans who believed the situation in Iraq was "worth going to war over" had sunk to a new low of 39%. When the same question was asked in a similar poll in October, 44% said it had been worth going to war.
But when asked whether the United States should begin withdrawing troops after Iraq's election Jan. 30, 52% said the administration should wait to see what the new Iraqi government wanted. More than a third, 37%, said the United States should begin drawing down at least some of its troop strength.
Americans are almost evenly divided over how long U.S. forces should stay in Iraq, the poll found: 47% said they would like to see most of the troops out within a year, while 49% say they could support a longer deployment -- including 37% who say the troops should remain "as long as it takes" to secure and stabilize the country.
The results suggest that while Americans have grown more pessimistic about the chances for success in Iraq, most are willing to give President Bush some time to try to turn the operation into a success.
"We are seeing lower support for the war, but I would have expected it to be even lower ... given that the main rationale for the war -- the weapons of mass destruction -- turned out not to be there," said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University who is an authority on wartime public opinion.
Mueller noted that support for the war had been falling gradually since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, but that the erosion had not produced a majority in favor of early troop withdrawals.
"Support for this war is now lower than support for the Vietnam War was at the Tet offensive," Mueller said, citing the 1968 battles that were a turning point in U.S. public opinion then. "But in Vietnam [after Tet], the war continued for several years, and many people continued to support it through enormous casualties."
In Iraq, he noted, the number of U.S. casualties has been far lower than in Vietnam, a probable reason that public pressure for withdrawal has not mounted higher.
On the other hand, public support for increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq -- a proposal Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and several other members of Congress have made -- is negligible, the poll found. Only 4% of respondents said they would favor increasing American forces after the Iraqi election.
Respondents to The Times poll were downbeat about the results of the war in Iraq on several counts.
Asked which side -- the United States or the anti-American insurgents -- was winning the war or if it was a stalemate, 58% said that neither side appeared to have the upper hand, while 29% said they believed the United States was winning and 10% said the insurgents were winning.
Respondents were divided on whether the Jan. 30 election was likely to be a turning point leading to a significant improvement in Iraq's stability: 31% said they thought it would have a positive effect, 34% said they expected no significant effect, and 27% said they thought the election would actually lead to more violence.
Respondents also were divided on whether the election would help advance democracy in the Middle East, one of the Bush administration's main goals: 47% said it would probably advance democracy, but 45% said it probably would not.
But 59% said they favored holding the election on schedule despite fears of violence on election day. Over a third, or 35%, said the vote should be postponed.
Almost half, or 45%, said they believed the war had destabilized the Middle East; 24% said they thought it had a stabilizing effect. In April 2003, 52% thought that military action against Iraq would stabilize the situation in the Middle East.
And a large majority, 65%, said they believed the war in Iraq had harmed the United States' image around the world. Only 10% said the U.S. image had been helped.
The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,033 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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Was it worth it?
Q: Do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, or not?
Worth it 39% Not worth it 56% DonÕt know 5%
Source: Times Poll
Views on the Iraq war
Q: Do you think the war in Iraq has stabilized the situation in the Middle East, destabilized that region, or has it not affected that region one way or the other?
Stabilized the region 24% Destabilized the region 45% No effect 25% DonÕt know 6%
Q: Do you think the Iraqi election should go on as planned even though some people will not be able to vote, or should the election be postponed until all Iraqi people can vote?
Still vote 59% Postpone the election 35% DonÕt know 6%