By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
October 25, 2005
Thirty-two months after President Bush launched an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, experts and advocates disagree on whether the looming benchmark will further erode public or congressional support for the war that the president promises to continue until a successful conclusion.
As of Monday, the official Defense Department tally of Americans killed in Iraq stood at 1,987, while the unofficial Web site Iraq Coalition Casualty Count put the total at 1,997.
About 15,200 American military personnel have been wounded in the war. Totals on Iraqis killed since March 2003 are only estimates, ranging from 15,500 to 72,100 if victims of violent crime since Hussein fell in April 2003 are included, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq index.
United for Peace and Justice, a group that has organized anti-war protests throughout the country, plans small commemorations the day after the Pentagon's official count reaches the 2,000 mark.
"In practical terms, these are not going to be big-scale events," said Bill Dobbs, the group's national media coordinator in New York. "But they'll be poignant reminders that that there have been too many deaths." Dobbs' group favors an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a position rejected by Bush and the majority of members of Congress.
Dobbs said anti-war campaigners are focusing on Congress in an attempt to end funding for the war. "We've hammered Bush numerous times over Iraq, but Congress needs to be put on the hot seat because they authorized the war and continue to support it."
He said the milestone will produce anti-war momentum. "Every day there are more people saying enough of this war. I think more people are going to say end it."
But Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said an early end to the war would be a tragic mistake. "Every American death in Iraq or elsewhere is heartbreaking. ... But this war is as serious as any war America has fought," May said. He said the military effort in Iraq is directly related to the worldwide war against terrorism.
"This is as important as World War II," he said, in which America suffered more than 400,000 military deaths. At current levels of losses in Iraq, "It would take 200 years or so to lose that many in this war on Islamic totalitarianism," he said.
Maj. Gen. William Webster, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said it will take up to two years for the Iraqi army to have the military leadership and supplies it needs to operate on its own.
Webster did not say how that would affect any potential withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Passing the 2,000-death barrier in itself won't sway much of the public, said John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University, because polls show that much of the public has already turned against the war.
For instance, a CBS survey early this month showed Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling Iraq by 62 percent to 34 percent. By 59 percent to 36 percent, those polled said American forces should leave Iraq as soon as possible.
"The issue is that casualties keep accumulating and support for the war is very low, no matter how you measure it. It just erodes," Mueller said.
Given that erosion, Mueller said that even eventual victory in Iraq won't improve the public sentiment about the war. "There is no way to regain support. Those disaffected will still say it cost too much and it isn't worth the cost," he said.
Speaking from Baghdad via a video conference, Webster was asked by Pentagon reporters Friday about the looming 2,000 death toll.
"I think their service was honorable. We grieve every one of these losses. We think that their service is worth the effort. And when you talk to the majority of their brothers, the young soldiers out there fighting the fight, they want us to finish this mission," Webster said.
But Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a leader in congressional efforts to push for withdrawal from Iraq, said reaching the 2,000 mark will send a signal to her colleagues.
"There is a change of sentiment among the American people, and Congress had better catch up. ... People are getting fed up," she said.
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