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Americans' approval of Bush policy on war at a new low, poll says

WASHINGTON -- Americans' approval of President Bush's handling of Iraq has dropped to its lowest level , increasing the pressure on the commander in chief to find a way out after nearly four years of war.

Of those surveyed in the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 31 percent approved of his handling of Iraq, days after voters registered their displeasure at the polls by defeating Republicans across the board and handing control of Congress to the Democrats. The previous low in AP-Ipsos polling was 33 percent, in both June and August.

Erosion of support for Bush's Iraq policy was most pronounced among conservatives and Republican men -- critical supporters who propelled Bush to the White House and a second term in 2004. A month ago, approval of the president on the issue certain to define his presidency was 36 percent.

"I'm completely frustrated," Representative Robin Hayes, Republican of North Carolina, said this week during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Hayes's district includes part of Fort Bragg. He said he supports the US effort, but favors pushing Iraqi troops to take more responsibility for the fighting.

Bush's low numbers underscore the high expectations for the report by the Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and one time Representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. The demand for an exit strategy is being made as the number of US dead from the conflict exceeds 2,850.

The violence in Iraq, much of it among religious sects, continues unabated. Dozens of employees at Iraq's Higher Education Ministry were kidnapped this week, and some were reportedly tortured before they were released .

The Pentagon announced yesterday that 57,000 US troops, including five combat brigades, have been told to deploy to Iraq early next year -- a move that will maintain current force levels there as other troops leave.

"Hopefully the Baker-Hamilton commission can offer a face-saving measure for the White House that can put the beginning of the end in sight," said Representative Ike Skelton, Democrat of Missouri, who is in line to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Two options under discussion -- greater cooperation with Iran and Syria and a phased withdrawal of US troops -- would require a major policy shift by the Bush administration.

Almost by default, the poll of 1,000 adults taken Monday through Wednesday indicated that Bush's strongest issue was his handling of the economy. His rating was 43 percent .

The decline in support for Iraq was the most notable change. Anger about Iraq also was a strong theme for voters, according to exit polls taken for the Associated Press and the television networks.

A majority of the voters surveyed disapproved of the war in Iraq, thought the war has not made the United States more secure, and wanted to see troops start coming home, those polls indicated. All of those groups voted for Democratic candidates.

"The president recognizes that the American people are understandably concerned about the violence in Iraq," said White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. "He shares their concerns, but believes that our policy in Iraq must be determined by victory in the war on terror, not public opinion polls."

Some people question whether victory is achievable.

"Now it's a total mess, and I don't have the faintest idea how they're going to get out," said Arthur Thurston, a Democratic-leaning independent from Medina, Ohio.

Bush has met with Democratic leaders since the election, though Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he thinks the president will need to be pushed to change his stance on Iraq.

"I agree that we need to stay over there and finish what we started. I don't like that our people are over there dying. But if we don't finish it, it will come back over here," said Kelly Mangel, an independent from Sedalia, Mo.

The public divisions over the war have left the Iraq Study Group with a difficult job.

"If there's any hope," said Leon Panetta, a Democratic member of the blue-ribbon panel, "it's that our recommendations can help pull the country together -- if Republicans and Democrats can agree on a common strategy."

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