Pentagon officials say they are increasingly worried that Washington's political fight over the Iraq war will dampen what has been high morale among troops fighting a tenacious and deadly enemy.
Commanders are telling Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that ground troops do not understand the generally negative press that their missions receive, despite what they consider significant achievements in rebuilding Iraq and instilling democracy.
The commanders also worry about the public's declining support for the mission and what may be a growing movement inside the Democratic Party to advocate troop withdrawal from Iraq.
"They say morale is very high," said a senior Pentagon official of reports filed by commanders with Washington. "But they relate comments from troops asking, 'What the heck is going on back here' and why America isn't seeing the progress they are making or appreciating the mission the way those on the ground there do. My take is that they are wondering if America is still behind them."
Mr. Rumsfeld appeared on several Sunday talk shows yesterday to express concern about the effects of the political discussion on U.S. forces.
"We also have to understand that our words have effects," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "Put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who thinks that we're going to pull out precipitously or immediately, as some people have proposed. Obviously, they have to wonder whether what they're doing makes sense if that's the idea, if that's the debate."
He repeated similar words on other shows, saying on CBS' "Face the Nation" that war critics should "think about the troops that are there and how it sounds to them." He also exhorted the audience on ABC's "This Week" to "put yourself in the shoes of the American soldiers."
But Lawrence Di Rita, spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld, said commanders are not telling the Pentagon that morale is sinking, although they have long-standing concerns about the press.
"The commanders often have expressed their incredulity at the difference between the progress they are seeing in Iraq and the manner in which that progress is obscured, in Washington, by the disproportionate focus on the challenges, in lieu of the many reasons to feel proud and satisfied at all that is happening," he said.
The political fight over Iraq has heated up in recent weeks as the White House says Democrats who supported ousting dictator Saddam Hussein essentially saw the same intelligence relied on by President Clinton, when he ordered bombing of Iraq in 1998, and by Mr. Bush. No major stocks of banned weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found since the 2003 invasion.
But Democrats are not only questioning the war because of the failure to find banned weapons.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has labeled the war a "grotesque mistake."
Last week, a respected Democratic voice on national security, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, called for withdrawal from Iraq because he thinks the war is not winnable. The U.S. death toll exceeds 2,000 and continues to rise as Saddam loyalists and al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists execute attacks and bombings.
The WMD charges, the call for withdrawal and the nervousness among Republicans are all being monitored by the almost 160,000 American troops in Iraq.
"They are not oblivious to this stuff nor are they isolated," said the senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be named.
Still, officers in Iraq contend that troop morale is good to excellent.
"I have not heard of any morale problems related to the political debates," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman in Baghdad.
Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Marine spokesman in the violence-wracked Anbar province, said, "We haven't conducted any surveys so obviously we can't speak to the morale of every Marine, sailor and soldier out here. However, based on comments from commanders and leaders who interact daily with troops at all levels, I'd say morale remains pretty high."
Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, an author of books on military transformation, said he is hearing something different from returning troops.
"Soldiers see no viable mission, no plan and no strategy," Col. Macgregor said. "No one trusts any of the Arabs in the Iraqi army, only the Kurds. Soldiers want to survive to go home and are fighting to keep each other alive. There is no Iraq. There is Kurdistan, which the soldiers all love. Then, there is the Sunni Arab center and the Shi'ite south that most think is an autonomous province of Iran."
Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.