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Waning US Iraq War Support Stirs New Comparisons to Vietnam Conflict

The decline in U.S. public support for the war in Iraq has prompted a debate about whether the effort in Iraq is beginning to resemble the Vietnam War quagmire of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Is Iraq turning into another Vietnam? For Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the answer is yes.

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," said Mr. Murtha.

Congressman Murtha is proposing U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq within six months.

Mr. Murtha served in the Marine Corps during Vietnam and was wounded twice. The conservative Democrat has long been one of the strongest supporters of the military in his party.

But so far, Congressman Murtha's proposal has attracted little support, either from fellow Democrats or majority Republicans.

Vice President Dick Cheney is among those warning that a quick withdrawal from Iraq would hurt U.S. interests in the Middle East.

"A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations and a terrible blow to the future security of the United States of America," said Mr. Cheney.

Congressman Murtha is one of several lawmakers who are taking a prominent role in the Iraq debate who are military veterans of the Vietnam War, a conflict that spanned nine years and claimed 58-thousand Americans and the lives of an estimated three million Vietnamese.

Among those veterans engaged in the debate is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, President Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2004 election.

Senator Kerry does not support the Murtha withdrawal plan, but he does want to begin bringing home U.S. troops early next year. Mr. Kerry also says the Bush administration must address declining public support for the effort in Iraq.

"They want real answers about how we are going to protect our troops and how we are going to be successful in Iraq," said Mr. Kerry.

One of the president's most vocal supporters on Iraq is Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. Senator McCain was a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down over Vietnam in 1967 and spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison.

"Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent issue for our foreign policy and our national security, for now and for years to come," said Mr. McCain. "I would submit that the stakes are higher than they were in Vietnam."

Another decorated Vietnam veteran is Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senator Hagel supported the invasion of Iraq but since then has criticized several aspects of the Bush administration's handling of the effort. He also takes issue with those in the administration who argue that the ongoing debate over Iraq is too divisive and damaging to the war effort.

"Vietnam was a national tragedy, partly because members of Congress failed their country. They remained silent and lacked the courage to challenge the administrations in power until it was too late. Some of us who went through that nightmare have an obligation to the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam to not let that happen again," said Mr. Hagel.

The VOA correspondent in Baghdad, Alisha Ryu, reports U.S. troops in Iraq are following the political debate in Washington and says there are concerns about the impact on morale.

RYU: "Some of them [U.S. troops] say that they feel upset by what they feel is a lack of understanding about what their mission is in Iraq and that they [the officials] should not be saying these things while they are deployed here and while they are trying to focus on the mission. On the flip side, there is some degree of agreement that, perhaps, things are not going as well as the U.S. military had hoped and it is not going as quickly as they had hoped."

Political analysts say there are some parallels between Iraq and Vietnam in terms of eroding public support.

Ohio State University Professor John Mueller says the intense news coverage of Iraq and its aftermath have helped to shape public opinion much more quickly than during the war in Vietnam.

"It has happened much faster than it did in Vietnam," said Mr. Mueller. "The [public] support levels in 2005, when about 2,000 Americans had died are about the same as they were in 1968 in Vietnam when about 20,000 Americans had died. So in proportion to casualties, the drop off has been much quicker."

President Bush's poll ratings are at a low point in part because the public has become disillusioned with the prospects for success in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the administration will stay the course in Iraq no matter what the polls say.

"If presidents started chasing polls, they would get seasick because they go up and down and up and down," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

But Ohio State University expert John Mueller says the Iraq conflict has sparked political divisions in Washington more quickly and more intensely than during the Vietnam War, when domestic opposition built over a period of several years.

"This war is very special in the sense that there is this huge difference between Republicans and Democrats," added Mr. Mueller. "This is by far the most divisive war or military action that has been accomplished [has been undertaken] by the United States in the last 50 years and so that is a very special aspect of that. The country is really intensely divided on this war and even more so on this president."

The divide over Iraq could last into the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, when several Vietnam veterans, including Senators Kerry, McCain and Hagel, may decide to make a bid for the White House.