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2 polls suggest grim view of surge

Petraeus set to testify as pressures mount

A US soldier who arrived in Iraq in January as part of President Bush's troop increase patrolled Baghdad yesterday. A US soldier who arrived in Iraq in January as part of President Bush's troop increase patrolled Baghdad yesterday. (John Moore/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - As General David H. Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, prepared to report to Congress today on gains made by the surge of 30,000 additional US troops in Iraq, two national polls released yesterday indicated that a majority of Americans believe the increased US troop presence has failed to deliver significant improvements in the war-torn country.

The polls are troubling signs for the Bush administration's intensifying efforts to keep up American support for a large-scale troop presence in Iraq.

Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, are slated to testify before four Congressional committees today and tomorrow. They are widely expected to report limited political progress in Iraq, but some significant military gains, including a reduction in sectarian violence and a new partnership with Sunni Muslim groups to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq forces in Anbar Province. Later this week, President Bush will announce his plans for the US military in Iraq.

Even before the week of high-stakes testimony begins, the report by Petraeus and Crocker has been the subject of a full-throttle public relations battle, as the administration and its supporters seek to turn the tide of US public opinion about the war, while those favoring a pullout seek to raise doubts about Petraeus's assessment.

Moveon.org, a liberal group that opposes the war, will run an ad today in The New York Times that asks: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" The ad suggests that Petraeus is "cooking the books for the White House" by overstating progress there. Meanwhile, a conservative group called Freedom's Watch has launched a $15 million advertising campaign in 20 states. The group, which counts among its board members former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, was formed "to give a voice to those who believe that victory is America's only choice," according to its website.

The administration has intensified efforts to get out the word about what it sees as significant positive developments in Iraq. In addition to the president's two major speeches in recent weeks on the consequences of failure in Iraq, and his surprise visit to Anbar Province last week, the administration has made a coordinated, behind-the-scenes effort to generate support for the war.

Since the surge was announced in January, the White House has hosted bimonthly sessions for skeptical congressional aides, analysts, and opinion-makers to link them, via videoconference, with US officials in Iraq who could speak about progress being made on the ground.

"Our main goal is to get more information out about what's going on to more different audiences," Mark Pfeifle, the administration's deputy national security adviser for communications, said in an interview. "The more people we can reach out to and talk to, the more the public will know and understand the challenges and what's at stake."

In recent weeks, two additional public affairs officers have temporarily joined a joint outreach effort by the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department. The joint team has intensified the administration's public relations campaign, organizing three such videoconferences for reporters with members of the provincial reconstruction team in Iraq.

Veterans groups that support the war say the White House has been in closer touch with them recently, regularly sending updates and information. Country singer and comedian Johnny Counterfit, who wrote a song called "We're In It, Let's Win It" about Iraq, said in an interview that he recently received a call from Claude Chafin, a White House aide, asking for permission to send the song to various constituents.

Some say the administration's outreach and the Petraeus report are having an impact. A flurry of high-profile op-eds by analysts who have toured Iraq with US military officials described new evidence of progress on the ground.

"I sense a change in mood," Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaida'ie, said during a C-SPAN "Newsmakers" interview yesterday. "I sense a greater degree of preparedness to listen and to consider the situation afresh. I can almost hear people thinking, 'Well, this might just work.' That is a change in atmosphere, a change in the mood, and I hope this will result in change approach towards Iraq."

But the two polls released yesterday suggest that the administration still faces an uphill battle convincing Americans that Iraq can still become a success. According to the ABC/Washington Post poll, 58 percent of respondents said they felt the US surge had no impact on the situation there, while 12 percent said they felt it had made things worse. Fifty-three percent of those polled said they believed that Petraeus would present an assessment that is more positive than the reality on the ground. Only 39 percent thought he would portray the situation honestly.

However, a CBS/New York Times poll, released late yesterday, showed that 68 percent of respondents said they would trust the military most with successfully resolving the war in Iraq compared with just 21 percent who trusted Congress most and 5 percent who trusted the Bush administration most. The poll also showed that 45 percent of respondents believe the surge had no impact while 12 percent believe it had made the situation worse.

Bush, in his weekly radio address Saturday, urged people to listen to Petraeus and Crocker before "jumping to any conclusions" about the way forward for the United States in Iraq.

But Democrats announced their skepticism yesterday before his testimony.

"We're going to hear General Petraeus, who's going to give a report on how good General Petraeus has done over there," Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" yesterday. "It looks like General Petraeus is going to ask for six more months. And it's clear that this administration is trying to delay the ultimate judgment until the next president gets into office. . . . In the meantime, American servicemen and women are paying the price. That is fundamentally wrong."

Senator John F. Kerry, another Massachusetts Democrat, said on ABC's "This Week" that "none of us should be fooled" by the debate over Petraeus's testimony on tactical military successes. Kerry said only political reconciliation by Iraq's warring factions could produce real success.

Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told CNN's "Late Edition" that he has an open mind about the report. But he also said, "Unless we see some light at the end of the tunnel here, very closely examining what General Petraeus and others have to say, I think there's a general sense that there needs to be a new policy."

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