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Iraq: Will Public Support For War Diminish As Coalition Casualties Mount?

Measured against past wars, coalition casualties so far in the Iraq conflict have been few. Yet each military death now receives far more media attention than in the past. Why is this, and does it mean that people in the U.S. and Britain have different expectations of their generals than they did 30, 50, or 100 years ago?

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The military operation in Iraq is almost two weeks old now, and the bodies of coalition soldiers killed in battle have started returning home.

In this respect, it has become clear that this is a war like any other -- where territory is taken or lost, and soldiers die.

But what is different about this war is the media attention being given to coalition losses, despite the fact that, so far, few soldiers have been killed. To date, fewer than 100 soldiers out of some 100,000 U.S. and British troops currently taking part in combat operations inside Iraq have been killed -- many of those due to "friendly fire" accidents.

By comparison, hundreds of thousands of U.S. and British soldiers perished during battles in both world wars -- sometimes thousands in a single day. Yet some commentators are already raising doubts about the success of the coalition campaign and expressing concern that the public's tolerance for casualties may soon be tested.

Are those commentators right? And, if so, does it mean that people's expectations of war are different than those held by the generations before them? Is the way journalists are reporting the story influencing these views?

Robert Hutchinson of the "Jane's Defence Weekly" military journal told RFE/RL that the coalition's "embedding" of 800 reporters among its units in Iraq is definitely influencing the way the war is being reported -- including the attention given to military casualties, when they occur.

"We're seeing the journalists actually operating with units they've been assigned to, and they're capturing a snapshot of what is happening. And of course, in war, there are quite long periods when nothing happens. So they may skew the public perception of the casualty rate because that's the news they have -- sad as it is, the loss of life -- so we are probably seeing some unintentional, skewed reporting," Hutchinson said.

Given the trauma of the Vietnam War for the United States, in which some 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, and the extremely low casualty count of successive U.S. military engagements -- 17 U.S. soldiers killed in the operation to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, fewer than 150 U.S. dead in the previous Gulf War in 1991, and no U.S. combat deaths in the 1999 Kosovo operation -- it is not surprising that coalition deaths in Iraq are attracting attention.

But Hutchinson does not believe the American and British people will sour on the conflict in Iraq, even if the death toll continues to rise. In the wake of 11 September, Americans especially, he said, can be expected to be more tolerant of military casualties.

"Both public opinion in the U.S.A. and the U.K. is probably fairly realistic at this point in the expectation of casualties. There's always the fear among the U.S. military, based on historical experience, that support for conflict, support for war, will be eroded by casualties in the field. Currently, opinion polls in the States show that the American public is perhaps more realistic than that and anticipates that sadly, there will be a large number of casualties in this war, and they're prepared for it to go on for some time," Hutchinson said.

Philip Mitchell of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies agrees. Mitchell expects the British public to be as "tough" in this respect as the Americans.

"Given Britain's role in all sorts of military operations, I think the British public has come to realize that military operations are inevitably going to involve military casualties and therefore, while they are concerned, they accept that it is going to happen," Mitchell said.

There is, however, one caveat. The U.S. administration, in particular, has linked the war in Iraq to the global fight against terrorism. Hutchinson said: "The polls demonstrate that the American public wants to prosecute the war against terrorism pretty hard. Now, whether the conflict in Iraq is part of the war against terrorism is a matter of some debate at the moment."

Hutchinson added that if coalition forces discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and if Washington is able to demonstrate that -- with the fall of Saddam Hussein -- progress has been made in dismantling international terrorist networks, high public approval for the Bush administration's actions will continue.

But if -- as many antiwar protesters have said -- the war in Iraq turns out not to boost the fight against terrorism, or worse, actually complicates it, public opinion could shift quickly. At this point, even a handful of military casualties will be seen as too many if the majority of Americans come to believe the war should not have been fought in the first place.

As for the days ahead, public opinion in the United States and Britain -- according to Hutchinson -- may actually harden in favor of stronger coalition military strikes, especially if guerrilla-type attacks by Iraqi civilians or Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians increase.

"The New York Times" reported this week that the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division has a team of lawyers to advise on whether certain military targets it is encountering are legitimate under international law. The newspaper also reports that the U.S. military maintains a database of some 10,000 targets to be avoided, such as hospitals, mosques, and cultural or archaeological treasures.

If more U.S. soldiers are hit by Iraqis shooting at them from ambulances or hospital buildings, however -- as recently reported -- American public opinion may push for these self-imposed restrictions on military engagement to be dropped.

"We may find, in the days to come, as resistance stiffens, there may be popular support growing -- in the U.S.A. particularly -- for some kind of easing of that restriction. There may be a feeling that the American forces are working with one hand tied behind their back, if you like -- that they're unable to actually prosecute the war effectively in military terms because of that quite laudable curb on targeting to avoid loss of unnecessary civilian life," Hutchinson said.

Philip Mitchell at the International Institute for Strategic Studies said that temptation should be resisted. He believes the war can be won while taking care to safeguard civilian lives as much as possible.

In the long run, he said, the more Iraqi civilians who die in this conflict, the less coalition forces will be viewed as liberators -- no matter how successfully the war is prosecuted in military terms.