Recent public opinion polls reveal a growing unease among Americans about the U.S. military involvement in Iraq and the president's handling of the situation. The Pentagon says deteriorating public support is disconcerting.
With the U.S. death toll now above 1,700 and an increase in deadly insurgent attacks, many Americans say they are increasingly pessimistic about the situation in Iraq.
Lieutenant General James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that trend is worrying.
"American public opinion is the center of gravity," he said. "A democracy can't do certain things, if, in fact, the citizens don't support it. So, it is concerning that our public is not as supportive as they once were. We'd like to reverse those figures, and turn back in the other direction, because it's extremely important to the soldier, the Marine, the airman and the sailor over there to know that their country is behind them."
For the first time since the March 2003 invasion, a majority of Americans say they support withdrawing some, or all U.S. troops in Iraq. A Gallup poll released this week says nearly six-in-10 Americans favor a reduction in U.S. force size in Iraq. Several lawmakers, including some who supported the war, are considering whether to support a measure that would impose a deadline for U.S. forces to return home.
General Conway said military commanders in Iraq would probably not welcome what he called "an artificially imposed deadline." He said this would play into the hands of insurgents who believe that, if they continue their bloody campaign, they will drive out U.S. and coalition troops, before the new Iraqi government is able to stand on its own.
"If you look at it from the insurgents' perspective, they know our history, just as we study them," General Conway said. "And they see where we have withdrawn previously, in Vietnam, in Beirut, in Somalia, and nothing would make them happier, I suppose, than to think that there is a deadline out there."
Currently, there are 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. In addition to tracking down insurgents, U.S. commanders are focusing their efforts on training Iraqi security forces, who, General Conway said, number just over 169,000. A trained, functioning army and police force is one of the goals President Bush and military commanders have set out as a precursor to any drawdown in U.S. troop levels.
Pentagon spokesperson Lawrence Di Rita said the other goals include the transfer of sovereignty, which happened almost one year ago, greater involvement of the international community and the reconstruction of Iraq's decrepit infrastructure.
According to Mr. Di Rita, all of these goals are on their way to being met, and he blamed the news media's coverage of insurgent attacks for the downturn in public opinion.
"We are living in an age where it's 24-7 news coverage. We've talked a lot about this. They [the public] are being inundated every day with images that are negative. And they rightly react by saying 'Geez, if it's so bad over there is there any hope for the future?' And our job is to keep reminding people that the future is one that is a very different future for 50 million people that have been liberated by U.S. forces and coalition allies," he said.
Mr. Di Rita said he believes, in the long-term, the American public will look back on the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as missions that were worth the loss of American lives.