WASHINGTON (AP) – Public opinion favored President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq about 2-to-1 soon after Saddam Hussein’s capture, but months of chaos and casualties have taken a heavy toll on public support for the war.

Now the public is evenly divided on whether the war was the right thing to do or whether it was a mistake.

Among those increasingly skeptical about the war are older people, minorities, people with lower incomes, residents of the Northeast and Catholics, according to Associated Press polling.

The shifts in overall public sentiment reflect the difficulties in Iraq – including a death toll nearing 950 U.S. soldiers, the violent insurgency against the new Iraqi government and U.S. forces and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, which was among the central justifications for Bush’s decision to go to war.

“It was a mistake,” said 73-year-old Mil Jenkinson, a retired schoolteacher and a Democrat from Dickinson, N.D. “There were no weapons of mass destruction. I keep thinking it’s not our place to rule the world. Everyone does not think our way of life is the right way.

“It’s arrogant of us to go into a country and tell them what kind of government to have.”

Even among those who maintain their support for going to war, urban battles and roadside bombs have caused a shift in perspective.

For Jim Adams, a 42-year-old Republican from Plymouth, N.H., the decision to use force in Iraq was right and he still supports Bush, but he says the follow-through in Iraq was lacking.

“I don’t think it was a mistake to go there,” Adams said. “But we’ve gone down a slippery slope.

“We had good reason to go based on the evidence at the time, but we’ve gone in a direction we never intended to go,” he said. “We’ve alienated the population. We wanted the population to embrace our values, and we’ve done exactly the opposite.”

Almost nine in 10 Republicans still say it was the right thing to do. But Democrats and independents lost enthusiasm for the war during the period since Saddam was captured in December.

Overall, about half in an August AP-Ipsos poll said they think the war in Iraq was the right thing to do.

About six in 10 feel Bush does not have a clear plan for bringing the Iraq situation to a successful solution, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

With Saddam in custody, U.S. military commanders expected, or at least hoped, that Iraqi insurgents would be less inclined to fight. Instead, a flare-up of violence in southern towns in April led to increased combat operations. A cease-fire with one militant group recently fell apart, leading to more clashes in Najaf.

Despite the handover of political power to an Iraqi interim government on June 30, the U.S. forces continue to lead the military fight in Iraq. In addition, U.S. weapons inspectors continue to search but have found no weapons of mass destruction.

In the August poll, those most likely to say the Iraq war was the right thing to do were Republicans, Southerners, those who earn more than $50,000 a year and young adults.

“Iraq was getting out of hand,” said Kim Rivers, a 35-year-old Republican who works as a teacher’s aide in Champlain, N.Y. “It should have been done a long time ago.”

Yet among many different groups of Americans, a majority of people now say the war was a mistake. Those groups include minorities (65 percent), Northeasterners (60 percent), Democrats (80 percent), people who make less than $25,000 a year (57 percent) and Catholics (51 percent).

In December, support for the war was widespread among most groups, although minorities even then were about evenly split on the question.

Last December, for example, 56 percent of seniors said the war in Iraq was the right thing to do and 40 percent disagreed. Now, six in 10 say the Iraq war was wrong.

Looked at in terms of the presidential campaign, almost nine in 10 Bush supporters say going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do, while almost nine in 10 supporters of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry say it was a mistake, according to polls conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

While the number dubious about the Iraq war has grown over the past eight months, support for U.S. troops remaining in Iraq until the job is done remains fairly constant. Since spring, just over half in various polls have said they support staying in Iraq until it is stabilized.

The most recent AP-Ipsos poll of 1,001 adults was conducted Aug. 3-5 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, larger for subgroups like older Americans.

AP-ES-08-18-04 0149EDT

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