Monday, July 24, 2006

Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003 — up from 36 percent last year, a Harris poll finds. Pollsters deemed the increase both “substantial” and “surprising” in light of persistent press reports to the contrary in recent years.

The survey did not speculate on what caused the shift in opinion, which supports President Bush’s original rationale for going to war. Respondents were questioned in early July after the release of a Defense Department intelligence report that revealed coalition forces recovered 500 aging chemical weapons containing mustard or sarin gas nerve agents in Iraq.

“Filled and unfilled pre-Gulf War chemical munitions are assessed to still exist,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, during a June 21 press conference detailing the newly declassified information.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who shared the podium, said, “Iraq was not a WMD-free zone.”

In recent weeks, the Michigan Republican has recommended that more material confiscated since the invasion be declassified and made public, including a 1998 standing order to Iraqi officials to hide or destroy weapons and thus evade inspectors from the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the Harris poll offered some positive feedback on Iraq. Seventy-two percent of respondents said the Iraqi people are better off now than under Saddam Hussein’s regime — a figure similar to that of 2004, when it stood at 76 percent. In addition, 64 percent say Saddam had “strong links” with al Qaeda, up from 62 percent in October 2004. Fifty-five percent said that “history will give the U.S. credit for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq.”

And although the response is tepid, American confidence in the Iraqis has improved: 37 percent said Iraq would succeed in creating a stable democracy, up five points since November.

Americans remain in touch with the realities of Iraq: 61 percent said the conflict has motivated more Islamic terrorists to attack the U.S. — a number that has remained virtually unchanged since 2004.

An additional 41 percent say the war has reduced the threat of another major terrorist attack in the United States, a sentiment also unchanged in the past two years.

The financial burden of the war may be less keenly felt. The poll found that 56 percent said spending “huge amounts” for ongoing military efforts in Iraq means less funds are available to protect Americans at home. The figure was 62 percent last year, but 51 percent in 2004.

Has the war earned respect for the U.S. overseas? Sixty-eight percent said “no,” the same as last year. The figure stood at 62 percent in 2004.

The poll of 1,020 adults was conducted July 5 to 11 and has a margin of error of three percentage points.

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