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Casualties in Iraq likely to erode public support

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WASHINGTON — The upsurge in U.S. casualties in Iraq is expected to deepen the erosion of public support for a war that has claimed the lives of more than 1,800 GIs in 29 months, according to experts on wartime public opinion.

Battlefield losses that claimed the lives of at least 31 soldiers over the past week underscored the relentless toll of a military operation that has evolved into an unexpected test of American resolve, counterinsurgency and nation building after starting out as a "shock and awe" offensive to wrest suspected weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein.

John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and author of "War, Presidents and Public Opinion," said he foresees "continued erosion in support" in the wake of latest losses.

"People constantly gauge the number of lives lost and the stakes involved," Mueller said. "Any bump-ups in support for Iraq are taking place against the background of a gradual decline."

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says the "erosion" of support has been "pretty much driven by casualties."

Polls showing declining public support for the Iraq war recall similar responses by the electorate during stalemates in Vietnam in the late 1960s and in Korea in the early 1950s.

Recent Gallup Poll surveys of attitudes on Iraq show:

46 percent of Americans now call the decision to send troops "a mistake" — up from 23 percent at the outset of operations in March 2003.

53 percent now say it was "not worth going to war" — up from 19 percent three weeks into the invasion two years ago.

59 percent now oppose the war — up from 25 percent at the outset.

These same polls also show that Americans remain tightly divided on many aspects of operations in Iraq. Fifty-three percent say it was not a mistake to send troops to Iraq; 44 percent say it was worth going to war; and 39 percent favor the war, according to the Gallup Poll.

Public support for the war in Iraq is "trending downwards, (with) peaks and valleys along the way," Kohut says.

The key to building public support depends on whether President Bush can articulate a mission that has "the likelihood of success," three Duke University political scientists concluded in a study predating the latest wave of casualties.

"When the public believes the mission will succeed, then the public is willing to continue supporting the mission, even as costs mount," Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver and Jason Reifler — the Duke scholars — reported in a study. entitled "Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq."

"When the public thinks victory is not likely, even small costs will be highly corrosive."

The Bush administration recruited Feaver in June, after publication of his study, to join the White House National Security Council as a special adviser to help map efforts to galvanize public support behind ongoing operations in Iraq.

Bush claimed signs of progress in Iraq last week after the deaths of at least 14 Marines in a roadside explosion and 6 others in an ambush.

Their deaths boosted the toll of GIs killed in Iraq to at least 1,825 as of late Thursday, in addition to at least 13,769 other U.S. troops who have been wounded since the U.S. invasion began March 19, 2003.

"We will stay the course; we will complete the job in Iraq," Bush said Thursday. "It's also important for our citizens to understand that progress (has) been made."

Mueller likens the steady deterioration of public support to what happened during the Vietnam War and the Korean War.

In the case of the Vietnam War, Gallup Polls showed the surge in U.S. casualties during the 1968 Tet offensive convinced more Americans that the war was a mistake. Some 54 percent of Americans considered Vietnam a mistake after the offensive — up from 45 percent before the onslaught.

Public attitudes shifted as well in response to the relentless casualties and elusive progress during the Korean War. Fifty-one percent of Americans deemed the U.S. effort a mistake by March 1952 — up from 20 percent who felt that way at the outset of U.S.-led efforts to expel North Korean invaders from South Korea in 1950.

John Allen Williams, a political scientist at Loyola University in Chicago, says the Bush administration has to be worried that a weary electorate might become "outraged" by combat casualties.

For many Americans, the casualty toll has become too relentless to follow day-to-day. Carol Jean Anderson, of Nashua, N.H., says many of her friends have turned away.

"They have become numb and immune to it because they are hearing it every day," Anderson said. "They don't allow themselves to expect that it will ever stop."