WASHINGTON — A large majority of Americans believe that embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should not resign over the Iraq prison scandal, but the public remains sharply divided over whether the administration moved quickly enough to investigate reports of abuse before they became public, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Seven in 10 Americans said Rumsfeld should not be forced to quit, a view held by majorities of Republicans, Democrats and self-described political independents. The survey comes a day after President Bush gave Rumsfeld a vote of confidence and as Rumsfeld faced stiff questioning by members of Congress enraged that they were kept in the dark about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

As new details continue to emerge, the survey found that public views on the way Bush is handling the scandal are divided and not yet fully formed. Fewer than half — 48 percent — said they approve of the way the president is dealing with the issue, while 35 percent disapprove. But 17 percent are undecided, a clear indication that many Americans are waiting for more information before coming to judgment.

The poll found even greater divisions over the way the administration handled reports of abuse before the scandal broke in the media last week. Four in 10 faulted the administration for failing to move quickly enough to investigate the reports while an identical proportion disagreed.

Americans also are divided over whether the administration made a good-faith effort to probe claims of abuse. Slightly more than four in 10 said the administration was seriously investigating the incidents before they were publicly reported last week — but just as many said they were trying to "cover it up."

But there was no clear indication yet that the scandal has affected the public's overall attitudes toward the war in Iraq, which have been trending downward since the first of the year as the situation in Iraq has grown increasingly violent and unstable.

About half of the country continue to say the war was "worth fighting" while nearly as many disagree. And six in 10 said the U.S.-led occupation is bogged down in Iraq. That number is unchanged from a Post-ABC News survey conducted three weeks ago, though the proportion who believe the United States is "making good progress" dipped to 35 percent.

As the military and political situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, the survey suggests that the prisoner abuse scandal has become another unwelcome surprise in Iraq, sharpening the deep partisan divide over the war and its aftermath and raising new doubts about the administration's management of the situation in Iraq.

Even though overall attitudes toward the war remain essentially unchanged, the proportion who believe that the administration has a clear plan in Iraq stands at 38 percent, down 7 percentage points in the past three weeks, while the proportion who see the administration adrift in Iraq stood at 57 percent, a new high in Post-ABC News polling.

A total of 802 randomly selected adults were interviewed Wednesday and Thursday for this survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Americans have recoiled in disgust over the flood of graphic photos that were published in the past week and appear to clearly document physical abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel. Still, six in 10 believe these were isolated incidents, while fewer than a third said such abuse was more widespread.

But there was no doubt in the public's mind about the seriousness of the reported incidents. Seven in 10 said the reports were "a big deal."

and half said they were either "upset" or "angry" about the incidents.

Two-thirds said the soldiers involved should be charged with a crime. A slight majority also believed higher-level officers should be held responsible for allowing a breakdown in discipline.

Republicans and Democrats largely agree on the seriousness of the allegations, the scope of the problem and the future of the secretary of defense, but differ dramatically when it comes to Bush's role in the process and the wisdom of the Iraq invasion in general.

Across the partisan spectrum, majorities of Republicans, Democrats and political independents said this kind of abuse is unacceptable, no matter what the situation, and about half in each group said they are either upset or angry about it.

At least six in 10 in each group said that the soldiers involved should be charged with a crime. But majorities of Republicans (82 percent), Democrats (58 percent) and independents (73 percent) said Rumsfeld should not be forced out of his job over the prison scandal, but also agree the reported incidents are serious.

When it comes to Bush and his role in the controversy, agreement vanished. Roughly six in 10 Democrats said the administration moved too slowly in investigating the report, and were mainly trying to cover up the scandal. At the same time, an even larger proportion of Republicans — about seven in 10 — said the administration acted quickly, and was making a genuine effort to investigate the problem and not cover it up. Independents roughly split on both issues.

Neither have the two parties drawn any closer in their views of the bigger picture in Iraq. The large majority of Republicans continue to say that the war with Iraq was worth fighting and the United States is making good progress, while the large majority of Democrats said the war was not worth the costs and worry that the United States is getting bogged down. Political independents divide more evenly on the issues: half said the war was worth it, half disagree. Still, six in 10 said they fear the United States has been slowed in its progress.