WASHINGTON – The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that many Americans perceive the alleged atrocities against Iraqi civilians by U.S. forces as isolated incidents while saying the U.S.-led invasion was a mistake, an unusual disconnect that sets this conflict apart from Vietnam.
The survey of 1,003 adults was completed Wednesday, shortly before the announcement that U.S. airstrikes had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, and the Iraqi parliament's approval of candidates for ministers in charge of the army and police.
It remains to be seen how those events could affect opinion, especially among a public paying close attention to war dispatches.
Some 76 percent of those questioned said they were following reports about allegations that U.S. troops killed unarmed Iraqi civilians.
The military is investigating reports that a small number of Marines murdered 24 Iraqi civilians — including unarmed women and children — in the town of Haditha on Nov. 19. It also is conducting a probe of an incident in Hamdaniya following allegations that Marines pulled an unarmed Iraqi man from his home on April 26 and shot him to death without provocation.
Regardless of whether the allegations turn out to be true, 63 percent of those surveyed said they thought the killings of civilians were isolated incidents. That view was especially true among Americans over 35, whites and those living in the South, where the military has a strong presence.
"I think they're doing everything possible to avoid such things," said Christine Berchelmann, a retired nurse and Republican-leaning independent from San Antonio. "The people they are seeking out, they are in dwellings right in the middle of all these civilians. There are always going to be casualties."
Sixty-one percent in the survey said the military is doing all it can to avoid killing Iraqi civilians.
While the AP poll found that most Americans are willing to give U.S. troops the benefit of the doubt, their misgivings about the war and the prospect of Iraq establishing a stable, democratic government are growing.
Fifty-nine percent said the United States made a mistake in going to war, a new high and a significant jump from the 34 percent in December 2004.
"The biggest mistake was going into Iraq," said David Smith, 38, a salesman from Springfield, Mo., and Democrat who leans independent. "If hindsight was 20-20, they should have thought about the repercussions."
Despite President Bush's pronouncements about Iraq setting up a viable government, only 44 percent of those polled said it was likely they would see a stable government in Baghdad. It was a new low in the survey.
"I think this is the first time in recorded history where the American people wholeheartedly support the troops and support for the mission is waning," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
The 15-term lawmaker cited the greater involvement of the National Guard and Reserves in the war. Some 25,000 members of the Guard and Reserve are in Iraq among the 132,000 U.S. troops.
"People have a neighbor or a cousin," Skelton said.
During Vietnam, growing opposition to the war paralleled disenchantment with American forces, many of whom had been drafted to serve. The conflict dragged on more than a decade, more than 50,000 Americans were killed and the U.S. departed Saigon in April 1975 as the communists prevailed.
Capturing the public consciousness during Vietnam was the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of innocent civilians in 1968.
In Iraq, the military has relied on an all-volunteer force of trained professionals.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said it is possible to oppose the war but "nonetheless see the military as divorced from that. The military is our sons and daughters and, of course, we wouldn't systematically engage in something that defiles American values."
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said he was not surprised "that the American people believe in the fundamental goodness of the American soldiers." Kline, a member of the Armed Services Committee, described the current troops as the "best we've ever had."
The survey also found that the war continues to take a toll on the public's view of Bush. Approval of the president was at 35 percent, essentially unchanged from his rating of 33 percent last month based on the poll's margin of error of 3 percentage points.
His handling of Iraq and foreign policy and the fight against terrorism hit new lows: Just 33 percent approved of his actions on Iraq and 39 percent on the commander in chief's fight against terrorism.
People had an even lower opinion of the Republican-controlled Congress. Only 24 percent approved of the way it's doing its job, essentially unchanged from last month but still a new low.
Fifty-two percent want Democrats to capture control of Congress in November, about the same as last month's poll.