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Most Americans Back Plan To Bomb Iraq, Polls Show More Support Now Than For Gulf War

Wed., Feb. 11, 1998

While admitting they haven’t thought about it very much, most Americans vigorously endorse the Clinton administration’s plans to bomb Iraq.

In fact, polls show they’re a lot keener now about going up against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein than they were on the eve of the Persian Gulf War seven years ago.

“We’ve just gotta take a stand and say, ‘Hey, enough, Saddam,”’ insisted Doreen White, 41, a social worker from Lawrence, Mass. In 1991, she recalled, she worried about U.S. casualties and the war’s duration. Now, she’s certain “it’ll be quick.”

There’s a good explanation for White’s blithe support, public opinion experts said: Back then, more than 300,000 U.S. ground troops faced death up close. Now, only an aerial bombardment is expected. Although about 30,000 U.S. troops are expected to be in the area, few are likely to encounter hostile fire.

In addition, Iraq, then feared as a foe, proved militarily pathetic. One hundred forty-eight American soldiers died in action in the Bush administration’s Persian Gulf War, while Iraq lost from 13,000 to 50,000 or more, depending on who’s counting.

“People expect this conflict to be short, rapid and concentrated. Nobody’s expecting large numbers of casualties,” said Michael Traugott, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies.

Moreover, President Clinton and Republican leaders today are unified against Saddam. By contrast, less than a week before the 1991 air assault began, four out of five Senate Democrats voted against the use of force in the Persian Gulf.

Then, Americans were split about 50-50 over doing battle with Iraq. These days, three out of four Americans think the United States should bomb Iraq if Saddam continues to resist U.N. weapons inspectors, according to a CBS poll taken Feb. 1. Other polls are less lopsided, but they show a favorable shift in recent weeks, even when respondents were told American military action would be nearly unilateral this time.

And Americans are not demanding that Iraq’s capacity for producing chemical and biological weapons be eliminated, several public opinion analysts noted. They’re willing to attack Saddam as punishment for flouting weapons-site inspections he’d agreed to after his 1991 defeat.

“He’s pushed us and pushed us,” White said. “We need to send him a warning that we mean business.”

“We’ve told him not to do it and he’s doing it anyway,” said Sam Kirby, 48, an engineer from Richmond, Va. What steels his determination, Kirby adds, are two convictions: One, that Iraq could make biological and chemical weapons, and two, that “Saddam is probably crazy enough to use them.”

Views like Kirby’s would provide President Clinton abiding support even if the United States suffered unexpected levels of casualties, said Andy Kohut, director of Washington’s Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan polling and opinion research group.

“When people feel military action is in the national interest, they’re more accepting of casualties than in nation-building or peacekeeping missions” like those involving U.S. troops in Somalia and Bosnia, Kohut said. “When it comes to Saddam, they are clear about why we are doing things.”

Kohut, whose surveys track the importance of various issues to Americans, said that in recent weeks, respondents have said they’re more interested in Iraq than in the White House sex scandal involving President Clinton and former intern Monica Lewinsky.

Still, only about 40 percent of those polled said they are following the Iraq situation closely, Kohut said. That compares with levels around 70percent in 1991, when a ground war was in the offing.

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