ST. LOUIS – There is no questioning public support for the troops in this river city, where yellow, curly ribbons pasted on the backs of motor vehicles are more common than street banners declaring allegiance to the beloved hometown Cardinals.

But 27 months into the Iraq war, public frustration and impatience have increased as the military death toll rises and an end to the conflict appears nowhere in sight. While the Vietnam-era peace movement never gained much footing in culturally conservative St. Louis, attitudes toward the Iraq war are shifting in subtle and sometimes contradictory ways.

The combination of the rising casualties, revelations like the so-called Downing Street memo and a growing perception that the war mission has become murkier has caused one-time war supporters and even strong proponents of the troops to question the wisdom of the mission. Attitudes mirror some of what is reflected in recent national polls, which show declining support for the war.

“I was an original supporter of the war. It seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t even know why we’re over there now and I don’t think anyone has an answer,” said Bart Poepsel, a carpenter working in downtown St. Louis. Poepsel said the troops should be pulled out.

Joyce Williams, who works for a downtown St. Louis department store, said she never thought the United States should have gone to war in Iraq and is convinced now the move was a blunder. Yet Williams questions the wisdom of setting a date for a pullout.

“I sort of feel like we should finish what we started, but I also think we have to move on,” she said. “You’re dealing with human beings here.”

Senior Bush counselor Dan Bartlett, acknowledging that “when people see violence on TV, you can understand why there ought to be anxiety,” promises that “the president is going to sharpen his message.”

Bush will take that opportunity at events this week, including a meeting with the Iraqi prime minister in the White House on Friday.

“One of the reasons we’re optimistic is that the political dynamic seems to be holding together … and there seems to be increasing support for these Iraqi institutions among the Iraqi people,” a senior administration official said last week.

“Nobody denies the loss of life and the carnage that is being wreaked on the Iraqi people and our people by the terrorists, and particularly those extremists who have come from outside,” he said. “But one of the interesting things that gives us hope is that the response of the Iraqi people and the security forces is to get in the fight.”

Evidence of that hope is not reflected in opinion polls. A New York Times/CBS News Poll released Friday showed only 37 percent said they approved of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, down from 45 percent in February. Also last week, there was a bipartisan call in the House to set a deadline for troop withdrawals.

Among those backing a resolution for a deadline was Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., an early supporter of the war.

Chris Williams, a real estate investor in Atlanta, said he is glad that some congressmen are talking about a withdrawal plan, but called it “too little, too late.”

“They should have talked about that before they gave the president authorization to go to war,” said Williams, who said he never supported the war. “You cannot rebuild a country politically and socially overnight. So we don’t have a choice at this point but to be patient.”

Jeff Pack, a project manager in St. Louis, said it would be “shortsighted” to set a pullout date.

“You can’t just draw a line in the sand,” Pack said.

But Pack, who describes himself as “wholeheartedly behind the troops,” said there needs to be a “re-evaluation of what we’re doing” in Iraq.

Pack added, “the sad thing is that sometimes when people say we should put a date on a withdrawal, they are viewed as unpatriotic, and that’s not fair.”

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Megan McKinney, a legal assistant who lives in Belleville, Ill., just across Mississippi from St. Louis, said she supports the war. McKinney said the troops need support, but she added, “I’m not sure we’re accomplishing anything over there.”

Former Marine Brett Williams, of Dunwoody, Ga., said he wondered initially whether the United States really needed to invade Iraq.

“I feel frustrated now because gas prices are going up. Almost everything is going up because of the war, I think,” he said.

Williams, who enlisted shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, was discharged last year for medical reasons. Now he said he does not see any hope of the United States getting out of Iraq soon, regardless of what Congress does.

“If they (the troops) leave now, they have lost every reason we went over there for in the first place. Then the next question everybody will be asking is, “why did we go?”‘ said Williams, who works at a liquor store.

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The White House maintains that, whatever disagreement the American public may hold about the war, it is unacceptable for U.S. forces to “stand down” until Iraqi security forces can secure the nation on their own. A victory for the insurgents, Bush insists, will only embolden them to take the fight elsewhere.

“A lot of men and women have lost their lives in this undertaking, and we have an obligation to them to make sure that they have not died in vain,” the administration official said. “That means completing the mission which they gave their lives for, which was a free, democratic Iraq able to stand on its own feet, and to join us in defeating the terrorists.”

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That is openly questioned by some war supporters. “I’m a Republican and I agree with the things Bush has done,” said Joe Nesselhauf, a St. Louis accountant, “but I think it’s right to set a date to get out.

“We didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction. We got Mr. Evil (Saddam Hussein) out of there. We set up a government, and now it’s time for them (Iraqis) to determine what direction they want to go.”



(Chicago Tribune correspondent Dahleen Glanton contributed to this report from Atlanta.)



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-18-05 1703EDT


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