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A growing challenge to Bush on Iraq war


San Francisco Chronicle

His ratings drop as a few GOP leaders ask for exit strategy

Washington -- Bloggers are circulating articles of impeachment. Democrats are demanding an exit strategy from Iraq. And even a few Republicans are openly questioning President Bush's execution of the war on terror.

As Bush appealed for patience in the quest for peace in Iraq during his radio address Saturday, there were signs that Americans are growing increasingly restless with war.

By nearly every measure of public opinion, support for U.S. involvement in Iraq has diminished with each passing month since American troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein and claimed victory in Baghdad in April 2003.

A Gallup poll conducted that month found 76 percent of respondents said it was worth going to war. Asked the identical question this month, only 42 percent agreed.

"There's a general sense that this is a mess, and no matter how far forward you look, it is hard to see how it gets less messy,'' said John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University.

As the reports of death and carnage entered their 28th month, Bush is faced with a mounting challenge to rally Americans behind the mission, and to make sure that concerns about his wartime leadership do not irreparably damage the rest of his agenda. His opponents sense an opportunity to pressure the administration into a new direction in Iraq, or at least inflict some political damage to their nemesis.

In some respects, Bush has already sidestepped the most threatening consequences of waging an unpopular war. A majority of Americans opposed the war in Iraq last November at the same time as they were electing Bush to a second term. And while most Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, a majority continue to voice approval for his broader war on terror.

Yet a CBS/New York Times poll released this past week showed Bush's popularity at one of the lowest points of his presidency, prompting some to speculate that Bush has little leverage to push through his Social Security proposal, tax reform or other priorities.

Opposition to the war today is of a similar strength to the opposition to the Vietnam War in 1968 at the time of the Tet offensive, Mueller said. Over the next few years, the anti-war movement gained strength, as casualties rose from about 7,000 in 1968 to more than 58,000 by 1973. So far, about 1,720 Americans have been killed in Iraq.

Bush addressed the skepticism over his Iraq policy during his radio address Saturday, declaring that: "This mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight.''

"The terrorists and insurgents are trying to get us to retreat,'' Bush said of the constant reports of violence, offering no sign of retreat. "We will settle for nothing less than victory.''

The White House has scheduled several high-profile events in the coming weeks to allow the president to make his case. On Friday, Bush will meet with Iraq Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari at the White House followed by a joint news conference. Bush is also expected to deliver a major address marking the first anniversary of Iraq's sovereignty at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Bush's opponents have seized upon the release of previously classified British memos that build the case that the administration had decided to go to war as early as the summer of 2002, and "fixed'' intelligence to back its mistaken assertion that Hussein had amassed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

A group calling itself Impeach Bush posted articles of impeachment on its Web page and declared this past week that "the movement to impeach George W. Bush is about to reach its highest level yet.''

Meanwhile Democrats, who only three years ago decided not to challenge Bush's foreign policy during the 2002 elections, sought to publicize Bush's troubles in Iraq.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco offered a measure, dismissed without a vote by Republicans, that would have forced the president to articulate an exit strategy for Iraq.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, led Democrats in a hearing Thursday -- which lacked a single Republican or the legal authority of a congressional committee -- where witnesses discussed the "Downing Street memo'' in which the head of British intelligence returned from Washington and wrote that Bush was intent on removing Hussein and that the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.''

The hearings, replayed on C-Span and reported in thousands of blogs, included testimony from Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in an ambush in Iraq last year.

"If the Downing Street memo proves to be true, Casey and thousands of people should still be alive,'' his mother testified. "I am even more convinced now that his aggression on Iraq was based on a lie of historic proportions, and was blatantly unnecessary.''

Conyers also delivered a letter signed by 122 House members to the White House asking Bush to explain the discrepancy between the classified British memos and his public claim that he was seeking a diplomatic solution.

While the partisan shots from Democrats were to be expected, Bush also drew criticism from several Republicans, suggesting that opposition to the war extended beyond his traditional opponents.

Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, whose anger at the French for opposing the war two years ago led him to demand that the House cafeterias to rename its French fries as "freedom fries,'' was among those who publicly called on Bush to produce an exit strategy.

On the broader war on terror, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called a hearing to discuss the legal standing of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, a long-held grievance of Bush's opponents. His effort was joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose constituents are strong Bush supporters and include a disproportionately high number of veterans.

"The war has gone on longer and more violently than people envisioned,'' Graham was quoted saying in the Washington Post, adding concern over the political dangers to those facing election in 2006. "We always accentuated the positive and never prepared the public for the worst. ... People are dying in larger numbers than we thought, and the insurgency seems to be growing stronger, not weaker.''

Casualties inevitably turn Americans against a war, and American discontent with the war in Iraq has grown much quicker than in previous conflicts. Anger over the deaths of soldiers in Vietnam still defines many Americans' view toward war. "This war is more unpopular if you take a look at how many casualties there are,'' Mueller said. "War is not a subtle phenomenon. People are getting killed, and it seems endless. As long as that goes on, support will continue to erode.''

E-mail Marc Sandalow at msandalow@sfchronicle.com.

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URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/06/19/MNGKBDB4701.DTL

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