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Wide Skepticism Ahead of Assessment
Poll Respondents Doubt Petraeus Will Give True Picture of Situation in Iraq

By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Most Americans think this week's report from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus will exaggerate progress in Iraq, and few expect it to result in a major shift in President Bush's policy. But despite skepticism about the Petraeus testimony and majority support for a U.S. troop reduction in Iraq, there has also been a slight increase in the number who see the situation there as improving.

The findings, from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, underscore the depth of public antipathy toward the Iraq war, the doubts about the administration's policies and the limited confidence in the Iraqi government to meet its commitments to restore civil order.

Fifty-eight percent, a new high, said they want to decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. And most of those who advocated a troop reduction said they want the drawdown to begin either right away or by the end of the year. A majority, 55 percent, supported legislation that would set a deadline of next spring for the withdrawal of American combat forces. That figure is unchanged from July.

Only about a third believed the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, most said the buildup has not made much difference, and a majority said they do not expect the troop increase to improve the security situation over the next few months. Just one-third were confident the Iraqi government can meet its political and security goals.

At the same time, however, there has been a six-point increase since July in the percentage of those who said the additional U.S. forces have improved the situation in Iraq (up to 28 percent) and a nine-point jump in the proportion of those who think the buildup will make things better (up to 43 percent). When Bush announced the troop increase in January, 57 percent said the United States was losing the war in Iraq. Now, 48 percent have said so. About a third said the United States is winning the war.

The public's baseline judgment on the war is little changed -- more than six in 10 said the war is not worth fighting, a sentiment that has been a majority view for nearly three years.

But though the public assessment of progress in Iraq remains largely negative, most expected Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to express a rosier view when he begins his congressional testimony tomorrow. Only about four in 10 said they expect the general to give an accurate accounting of the situation in Iraq. A majority, 53 percent, said they think his report will try to make the situation in Iraq look better than it really is.

As on many issues involving Iraq, Democrats and Republicans have decidedly divergent views, with independents largely tilting toward the Democratic vantage point. Just 23 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents expected an honest depiction of conditions in Iraq. By contrast, two-thirds of Republicans anticipated a straightforward accounting.

Most Democrats and independents also agreed that, regardless of the report's findings, Bush will not adjust his administration's Iraq policy. Even Republicans were closely divided about whether the president will use the occasion to make a shift (47 percent) or stick with his policies (44 percent).

Overall, two-thirds of Americans said they believe Bush will hold to his current course no matter what. In a July Post-ABC News poll, nearly eight in 10 Americans, including a majority of Republicans, said the president was too intransigent on the war.

There remains only limited support for key elements of the administration's rationale for continuing the fight. Two-thirds said the risk of a terrorist attack occurring in the United States would be about the same whether U.S. forces stay in Iraq or withdraw, 54 percent said anti-terrorism efforts can succeed without winning in Iraq, and 52 percent said the Iraq war has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States.

Bush's general approval rating remained at 33 percent in this poll, equaling his career low. On Iraq, 34 percent approved of how he is handling the situation; 65 percent disapproved.

Though about three-quarters of Republicans continued to approve of the president's performance on Iraq, 36 percent now say they "strongly" approve, the lowest percentage and a 12-point drop since January.

Going forward, the public trusts Democrats over Republicans to handle Iraq by an 11-point margin, but two in 10 now trust "neither" party on the issue. In previous polls, congressional Democrats had wider advantages over President Bush on Iraq, with that gap as high as 27 points in January.

Beyond current policy, the war has clear implications for the 2008 presidential race. More than a third identified Iraq as the campaign's single most important issue. The war received nearly three times as many mentions as the next most frequently cited issue, health care, at 13 percent. Nearly half of Democrats called Iraq the single most important issue, as did a third of independents and 28 percent of Republicans.

This Post-ABC News poll, conducted by telephone Sept. 4 to 7 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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