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Poll: Americans think Bush administration stretched truth on Iraq

WASHINGTON—A majority of Americans think the Bush administration exaggerated the threat of lethal weapons in Iraq to justify the war, according to a poll released Tuesday.

But one-third disagree, saying government officials were "being fully truthful" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and only 1 in 10 said the administration lied about the evidence, according to the survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

The nationwide poll, conducted June 18 to 25, showed that 52 percent agreed that the administration was "stretching the truth, but not making false statements" about the weapons threat.

So far, the search for such weapons has come up empty. On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees are conducting closed-door investigations into U.S. intelligence about Iraq's weapons capacity and whether it was misused. Some Democrats have called for public hearings.

The poll found a public conflicted about the rationale for war and growing more pessimistic about reconstruction efforts, but still supportive of the decision to invade Iraq and patient about a long-term American role there.

A large majority, 71 percent, agreed that Bush officials "implied that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks" on New York and Washington. And 25 percent said incorrectly that they thought Iraq was "directly involved in carrying out" those attacks. There is no evidence of such a role.

The survey found that 65 percent support the decision to invade Iraq, down just 3 percentage points from May. Some 40 percent described postwar efforts as going "not very well" and 13 percent chose the phrase "not at all well." In May, a majority was more positive.

"The poll shows the public is in some turmoil about Iraq, and uneasy about some of the administration claims," said Steven Kull, the director of the Maryland program. "But for most people, the pluses of going to war still outweigh the minuses."

Similar unease about the current situation in Iraq, where more than 60 U.S. troops have died since May 1, was reflected in a Gallup-USA Today poll released Tuesday. According to that survey, 56 percent said the situation in Iraq was "worth going to war over," while 42 percent disagreed. In mid-April, after the fall of Baghdad, the margin was 73-23 percent.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Gallup Poll showed high support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, and noted that 61 percent said the administration didn't deliberately mislead the public.

"I think the American people actually have a very good center of gravity about the situation in Iraq," Fleischer said.

Kull said that despite some pessimism about postwar efforts, his polling over several months showed patience over the need for a continuing American presence in Iraq. Most of those polled expect U.S. troops to stay there at least two years.

Four of five Americans said the United States has "the responsibility to remain in Iraq as long as necessary until there is a stable government."

At the same time, there is growing support for the United Nations and other international groups to play a larger role. Two-thirds said the United Nations should direct relief work, economic reconstruction and efforts to build a democratic government.

The PIPA poll comes as more members of Congress from both parties are urging the administration to "internationalize" the rebuilding effort by enlisting more countries and the United Nations.

The poll also showed that many Americans remain misinformed: 23 percent believe incorrectly that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

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Complete PIPA poll results are available at the Program on International Policy Attitudes Web site, http://www.pipa.org/

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030701 USIRAQ poll

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