June 19, 2005 Sunday
Chicago Final Edition
SECTION: NEWS ; ZONE C; Pg. 6
LENGTH: 1014 words
HEADLINE: Even in heartland, war support flags
BYLINE: By Tim Jones and Mark Silva, Tribune national correspondents. Tribune national correspondent Dahleen Glanton contributed to this report from Atlanta.
DATELINE: ST. LOUIS
There is no questioning public support for the troops in this river city, where yellow, curly ribbons pasted on the backs of motor vehicles are more common than street banners declaring allegiance to the beloved hometown Cardinals.
But 27 months into the Iraq war, public frustration and impatience have increased as the military death toll rises and an end to the conflict appears nowhere in sight. While the Vietnam-era peace movement never gained much footing in culturally conservative St. Louis, attitudes toward the Iraq war are shifting in subtle and sometimes contradictory ways.
The combination of rising casualties, revelations including the so-called Downing Street Memo and a growing perception that the mission has become murkier has caused one-time war supporters and even strong proponents of the troops to question the wisdom of the mission. Attitudes here mirror some of what is reflected in recent national polls, which show declining support for the war.
"I was an original supporter of the war. It seemed like the right thing to do," said Bart Poepsel, a carpenter working downtown.
"I don't even know why we're over there now, and I don't think anyone has an answer," said Poepsel, who thinks the troops should be pulled out.
Joyce Williams, who works for a downtown department store, said she never thought the U.S. should have gone to war in Iraq and is convinced that the move was a blunder. Yet Williams questions the wisdom of setting a date for a pullout.
"I sort of feel like we should finish what we started, but I also think we have to move on," she said. "You're dealing with human beings here."
White House takes notice
The Bush administration is taking declining public support for the conflict as a warning that it must increase its communication about the reasons for the war and also what it considers reasons for optimism, including the establishment of a new Iraqi government despite violence.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, the president acknowledged discontent over Iraq but indicated there would be no change in policy.
He said terrorists "have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror," The Associated Press reported. "This mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight."
Senior Bush counselor Dan Bartlett, noting that "when people see violence on TV, you can understand why there ought to be anxiety," promises that "the president is going to sharpen his message."
Bush will take that opportunity at events this week, including a White House meeting Friday with Iraq's prime minister.
"One of the reasons we're optimistic is that the political dynamic seems to be holding together . . . and there seems to be increasing support for these Iraqi institutions among the Iraqi people," a senior administration official said last week.
"Nobody denies the loss of life and the carnage that is being wreaked on the Iraqi people and our people by the terrorists, and particularly those extremists who have come from outside," he said. "But one of the interesting things that gives us hope is that the response of the Iraqi people and the security forces is to get in the fight."
Evidence of that hope is not reflected in opinion polls. A New York Times/CBS News Poll released Friday showed only 37 percent said they approved of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, down from 45 percent in February.
Also last week, there was a bipartisan call in the House for a troop-withdrawal deadline. Among those backing a resolution for a deadline was Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), an early war supporter.
Chris Williams, a real estate investor in Atlanta, said he is glad some in Congress are talking about a withdrawal plan but called it "too little, too late."
"They should have talked about that before they gave the president authorization to go to war," said Williams, who said he never supported the war. "You cannot rebuild a country politically and socially overnight. So we don't have a choice at this point but to be patient."
Jeff Pack, a project manager in St. Louis, said it would be "shortsighted" to set a pullout date. But Pack, who says he is "wholeheartedly behind the troops," wants a "re-evaluation of what we're doing" in Iraq.
Megan McKinney, a legal assistant from Belleville, Ill., across the Mississippi from St. Louis, said she backs the war. She said troops need support but "I'm not sure we're accomplishing anything over there."
Former Marine Brett Williams of Dunwoody, Ga., said he wondered initially whether the U.S. really needed to invade.
"I feel frustrated now because gas prices are going up," he said. "Almost everything is going up because of the war."
Williams, who enlisted shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, was discharged last year for medical reasons. Now he sees no hope of the U.S. leaving Iraq soon.
"If they [the troops] leave now, they have lost every reason we went over there for in the first place. Then the next question everybody will be asking is, `Why did we go?'" said Williams, who works at a liquor store.
The White House maintains that, despite disagreement among Americans about the war, it is unacceptable for U.S. forces to stand down until Iraqi forces alone can secure the nation. A win for the rebels, Bush says, would embolden them to take the fight elsewhere.
"A lot of men and women have lost their lives in this undertaking, and we have an obligation to them to make sure that they have not died in vain," the administration official said. "That means completing the mission which they gave their lives for, which was a free, democratic Iraq able to stand on its own feet, and to join us in defeating the terrorists."
That is openly questioned by some war supporters.
"I'm a Republican and I agree with the things Bush has done," said Joe Nesselhauf, a St. Louis accountant, "but I think it's right to set a date to get out.
"We didn't find any weapons of mass destruction. We got Mr. Evil [Saddam Hussein] out of there. We set up a government, and now it's time for them [Iraqis] to determine what direction they want to go."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Joanne Parker comforts her children during the funeral for her oldest son, National Guard Sgt. David Murray, at a church in Clinton, La. He died June 9 in a bomb blast in Baghdad. Baton Rouge Advocate photo by Kerry Maloney.
PHOTO: A soldier with the Army's 184th Infantry pays last respects to a fallen comrade Friday during a ceremony at Camp Falcon on Baghdad's outskirts. More than 1,700 troops have died in the Iraq war. Getty/AFP photo by Yuri Cortez. (Chicago Early Edition, News, Page 6.)