Rupert Cornwell: Fourth of July celebrations dampened by the mood over the war in Iraq

Outwardly, it was a Fourth of July like any other. Gaudy red-white-and-blue parades on Main Streets up and down America, fireworks at the Mall in Washington DC, the opening of a new museum about the Constitution in Philadelphia where they signed the Declaration of Independence exactly 227 years ago. Even the colour-coded terror alert was an unthreatening yellow.

But a nasty realisation intrudes on America's great midsummer festival. As Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of allied ground forces, bluntly reminded the nation from Baghdad this week, the all-conquering superpower is still at war in Iraq.

This is not the quiet denouement to a just war of liberation, which the relentlessly efficient opinion shapers at the White House and the Pentagon had led the country to expect. Instead, every day brings news of more attacks, more US soldiers killed and injured, more complaints from soldiers who went to war to free a people, but now find themselves bogged down in a peacekeeping mission they were not trained for, without discernable end.

"Bring em' on," was the swaggering response of President Bush the other day, when asked about the Iraqi resistance fighters harassing the occupying US forces. But a bipartisan delegation of US senators just back from Iraq has provided a more sombre assessment of the obvious - US troops are stretched thin and the opposition seems to grow more organised by the day.

The television pictures in American living rooms are starting to project another story too. The crowds cheering at the tumbling statues of Saddam Hussein are a distant memory. Now the images are of angry Iraqis jumping on the roof of a burnt out military vehicle, caught in one of the regular daily ambushes.

Iraq has not had - and may never have - its "Walter Cronkite moment," when a modern day successor of the legendary CBS news anchor travels to Iraq to inspect the situation, as Mr Cronkite did in Vietnam, and pronounces the war unwinnable. "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America," was the reaction of Lyndon Johnson.

George Bush remains popular, though his approval ratings have slipped from the giddy levels of the war's opening to a more mortal 60 per cent cent. But the doubts about the war - and the ostensible reason for which it was fought - are growing.

The most gung-ho columnists are changing the subject, while superhawks like Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Secretary of Defence, have fallen silent. A Gallup Poll this week said that only 56 per cent of Americans now believed Iraq was worth a war, compared with 73 per cent in mid-April, a few days after General Tommy Franks' blitzkrieg reached its triumphant climax.

Today, just 56 per cent reckon things are going well in Iraq, against 86 per cent when Mr Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May, to proclaim an end to major combat operations. Nor will his exhortations about "freedom" to another military audience yesterday, at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, do much to improve the mood.

Barely a half now expect that biological and chemical weapons will be found.

Even fewer believe that US forces will capture or kill the former Iraqi dictator - a doubt reinforced by the purported taped message of Saddam, broadcast by al-Jazeera yesterday. Forty-four per cent expect attacks against the US troops to continue.

No less revealing is the souring mood at military communities across America - normally unquestioning cheerleaders for foreign missions. According to The New York Times, a colonel at Fort Stewart, Georgia, came close to being attacked by the spouses of 800 soldiers in Iraq, as he tried to explain their long absence.

For all the promises of the Pentagon that foreign peacekeepers will arrive in Iraq next month to help, army wives know full well the US military contingent in Iraq, already 150,000, will, if anything, increase.

And thus other realisations dawn, only partly obscured by the jollities of this Independence Day, and the raucous yells of the troops in Baghdad when Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped by yesterday to tell them - what else? - that they were "the real terminators". It is one thing, ordinary Americans are beginning to understand, to terminate a regime, but far more difficult to put together a successor. And rarely has the gap been wider between how Americans see themselves (as compassionate and generous champions of democracy and freedom) and how they are perceived by the rest of the world whose help in rebuilding Iraq is becoming more necessary than ever.

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