Summary of Findings

President Bush’s plan to send roughly 21,000 additional troops to Iraq has drawn broad opposition from the American public. If anything, the plan has triggered increased partisan polarization on the debate over what to do in Iraq. While most Republicans support Bush’s initiative, Democrats overwhelmingly oppose it, and a solid majority of Democrats (62%) say that Congress should try to block it by withholding funding for the additional troops.

GOP support for the president’s proposal reflects a sharp shift of opinion among Republicans on the broader question regarding U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Currently, 47% of Republicans believe that more troops are needed in Iraq, up from 26% who held that view in December. By comparison, just a quarter of independents say more troops are needed (up seven points from December) and just 11% of Democrats agree.

Support for the president’s proposal is undercut by doubts about the impact that U.S. forces can have in Iraq. Americans are divided over whether the presence of American forces in Iraq is doing more to help the Iraqi government by providing needed support (43%) or more to hurt the Iraqi government by making them too dependent on the U.S. (43%). In addition, most lack confidence that the Iraqis can take over security in the provinces by November, as promised. And just 37% believe that America’s security from terrorist attacks depends on our success in Iraq — a fundamental part of President Bush’s case for the additional troops.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 10-15 among 1,708 adults, shows that the public remains focused on the situation in Iraq. Nearly half (46%) say they are following news from Iraq very closely. When it comes to President Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq, 43% say they have heard “a lot” about it. This compares with just 16% who had heard a lot about the Baker-Hamilton commission’s report last month. Attention to the Bush proposal is high across the political spectrum.

The public’s view of the situation in Iraq is decidedly negative — 62% say things are not going well right now, largely unchanged from December but up from just 43% in June of 2006. And more believe it was the wrong decision to take military action in Iraq by a 51%-40% margin; in June, slightly more believed it was the right decision than the wrong decision (by 49%-44%).

Republican backing for Bush’s proposal reflects a broader agreement with the arguments presented in support of a troop increase. More than seven-in-ten Republicans (72%) believe that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is strengthening the Iraqi government by giving them needed support, and about six-in-ten (63%) are at least somewhat confident that the Iraqi government can take over responsibility for security in the provinces by November, as promised. In addition, 62% of Republicans agree with the president that America’s safety from terrorism depends on achieving success in Iraq.

Democrats take a very different view of the situation in Iraq. Just 23% believe that America’s safety from terrorism depends on success in Iraq, and there is little confidence in the Iraqi government. About six-in-ten Democrats (62%) believe that the U.S. presence in Iraq weakens the Iraqi government by making them too dependent on us, and 64% are either not too or not at all confident that the Iraqi government can take over security responsibilities by November.

News Interest: Iraq, Unusual Weather

Iraq continued to attract the most public interest of any story this month. While 46% paid very close attention to news about the situation in Iraq, 31% say they very closely followed reports on Saddam Hussein’s execution.

The unusual winter weather affecting much of the U.S. also attracted considerable interest. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (39%) say they paid close attention to stories on unusual winter weather. A quarter say they tracked former president Gerald Ford’s death and memorial service very closely; an identical percentage closely tracked news about the incoming Democratic leaders in Congress. Just 17% say they paid very close attention to the U.S. air strikes on suspected terrorist sites in Somalia.