Umm Qasr is miserable and not under control. It?s like the Wild West

By Andrew Gumbel,In Los Angeles
Thursday 16 January 2014 03:54
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In the eyes of the American public, the conflict in the Middle East is going in one of two radically different ways.

For those who were broadly supportive of the war to start with, the military campaign is making excellent, if not trouble-free, progress.

Civilian casualties have, as promised, been kept to a minimum. Saddam Hussein may well be dead, and the rest of the Iraqi leadership is, they believe, severely weakened and growing weaker by the day.

A very different interpretation is circulating among opponents of the war. As they see it, American and British troops have made a disastrous series of miscalculations and are now struggling on the battlefield as they await reinforcements.

Warplanes and troops are engaging in an immoral slaughter of innocents and risk unleashing a humanitarian disaster in Iraq's cities. Not only is the Iraqi leadership not capitulating, but President Saddam is being turned into a hero for his stance against the most powerful military force.

America is thus experiencing a truly bizarre split. People in the anti-war camp often say they do not know a single person in favour of the Iraq campaign, and refuse to believe opinion polls showing support for the conflict holding steady at about 70 per cent.

Pro-war Americans can't make quite the same claim – almost every one of their rallies, after all, has been met by a protest – but they too believe they represent the "true" feelings of their fellow countrymen.

Under these circumstances, determining the prevailing mood is next to impossible.

One prominent political pollster, Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California, said opinions were "very much fluid and influenced by the events du jour". Another poll, by a group called Pipa/Knowledge Networks, broke down the 70 per cent pro-war figure and discovered that only 40 per cent of Americans are firmly behind the war; 20 per cent are firmly against, and the rest – in common with the mainstream media and the Democrats – are inclined to rally round President George Bush for the time being.

It does not help that much public opinion is marked by ignorance and confusion. Almost half of the country believes Saddam was responsible for 11 September, which he was not.

Broadly speaking, opposition to the war tends to increase with greater education levels, although that is not uniformly true. War supporters tend to get their news from television, especially the Fox News cable channel, a shameless cheerleader for Mr Bush's agenda, and tend to believe what they are told by the Pentagon. Opponents are more likely to surf the internet for foreign newspaper reports and alternative news sites, discounting what the government says as empty propaganda.

If the two sides agree on anything, it is the troops. In contrast to the Vietnam War, when returning soldiers were sometimes spat on, this generation's peace movement says the best way to support the troops is to bring them home.

Although most military families are either pro-war or keep their doubts to themselves, a new group called Military Families Speak Out has sprung up, representing about 300 families. "I support the warrior, not the war," one of its founders, Charley Richardson, who has a son aged 25 in the marines, said.

In some ways, life is going on as normal. Though attendance at cinemas has dropped, people are going to sports games, to parties and big Broadway shows. Anxiety is nevertheless on the rise, especially in states where severe budget deficits are leading to draconian cuts in education, public health and other services.

"With the war, and the budget cuts, and the recession, this is just the worst time imaginable in many of our lives," said Alan Friedenberg, a school principal in southern California.

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