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Pennsylvania City Divided Over Troop Withdrawal

The Bush administration says the elections in Iraq are proof that the U.S. strategy in that country is working. President George Bush recently has been trying to rally public support for a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq, to ensure reconstruction and democracy there. The campaign was launched after a respected member of Congress, John Murtha, called for the withdrawal of American forces. VOA's Jeff Swicord recently visited Representative Murtha's hometown of Johnstown in Pennsylvania, to see how people feel about a troop withdrawal.

An early morning meeting of veteran's affairs organizations in the Johnstown Pennsylvania area. Johnstown is a strongly pro-military community that, on a per capita basis, has one of the highest troop deployment rates in the country. But as the Iraq war nears its fourth year, support for the war is beginning to decline.

Linda Quinn's thoughts echo many in the community. "I have to say that I started out for the war positive and then I just felt that it was a war that was going to become increasingly unpopular as it continued. And, it has."

Johnstown is a socially conservative working class town in the heart of America's once-thriving steel producing area: the mills here closed in the 1970s and 80s. Traditional American values, patriotism, and military service still run strong through here. Two-thirds of the registered voters in the local election district are supporters of the Democratic Party.

Carpenter Nicholas Ramirez is one of them. He stopped in at Johnnie's Restaurant and Lounge on Main Street as a President Bush's speech on Iraq was carried live on television. "I saw [fought in] Vietnam, I heard what my dad told me about World War Two; those where wars that had to be fought. This one didn't have to be fought and what are we up to, 2,000 men dead. Why? For what, oil?"

Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district may be heavily Democratic, but Johnstown voted for President Bush in the last election. Chip Minemyer is editor of the local paper, The Tribune Democrat. "We looked at the numbers from Cambria County in the last election, which is where Murtha is based, and it was low fifties to high forties [percentages] Bush over Kerry. Which is surprising given the strong Democratic enrollment here."

Johnstown is home to Democratic Party Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, strong supporter of the military, and an advisor to many presidents on military matters. Like most in his district, he initially supported of the war. But in a speech last month he called for the U.S. to begin to bring its troops home, and was credited with sparking a national debate on the war.

"It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion and the American public knows it,” said the congressman. “The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction."

Chip Minemyer says Congressman Murtha's change of heart was not based simply on questions being raised by his constituents.

"I think he was hearing some of those rumblings but I think it was more of his personal reaction to it. The trip to Iraq and some of his conversations with military leaders,” added Mr. Minemyer. “The stops that he makes frequently at military hospitals and visits with troops that have just come back and what they are telling him."

But not all of his constituents agree with him. Craig Minnick served for a year in Iraq as a military policeman.

"Well, obviously I respect Mr. Murtha's opinion on it. Unfortunately, I think he is dead wrong on it quite frankly."

Ron Marawski's son-in-law has served two tours of duty in Iraq.

"I back President Bush, but I also back John Murtha. I don't feel that we can pull out in a two or three month period," said Mr. Marawski.

According to an unofficial poll conducted by The Tribune Democrat, readers back Congressman Murtha by a small margin. And Chip Minemyer has received over 100 letters to the editor about Iraq. He says the letters are evenly divided on the question of a troop withdrawal.