WASHINGTON: US public perceptions about former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaeda and stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continues to lag far behind the testimony of experts , boosting chances that President George W. Bush will be re-elected, according to a survey and analysis released on Thursday.
Despite statements by such officials as the Bush administration's former chief weapons inspector, David Kay; its former anti-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke; former chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix, as well as admissions by senior administration officials themselves, a majority of the public still believes Iraq was closely tied to the al-Qaeda terrorist group and had WMD stocks or programmes before US troops invaded the country 13 months ago.
"The public is not getting a clear message about what the experts are saying about Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and its WMD programme", said Steven Kull, director of the Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, which conducted the survey.
"The analysis suggests that if the public were to more clearly perceive what the experts themselves are saying on these issues, there is a good chance this could have a significant impact on their attitudes about the war and even on how they vote in November", he added.
The survey and analysis found a high correlation between those perceptions and support for Bush himself in the upcoming presidential race in November. Among the 57 per cent of respondents who said they believed Iraq was either "directly involved" in carrying out the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon or had provided "substantial support" to Al Qaeda, 57 per cent said they intended to vote for Bush and 39 per cent said they would choose his Democratic foe, John Kerry.
Among the 40 per cent of respondents, who said they believed there was no connection at all between Saddam and Al Qaeda or that ties consisted only of minor contacts or visits, on the other hand, only 28 per cent said they intended to vote for Bush, while 68 per cent said their ballots would go to Kerry.
The survey, which was based on interviews with a random sample of 1,311 respondents in March, was released amid a series of polls that indicate that Bush and Kerry are in a virtual tie less than seven months before the actual election.
While Kerry appeared to be leading in the wake of last month's congressional testimony by Clarke, who accused the administration of being insufficiently seized with the threat posed by Al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, Bush, who in recent weeks has spent an unprecedented amount of money on television advertising so early in the campaign, has closed the gap and, according to one 'Washington Post' poll published earlier this week, pulled slightly ahead.
The latest PIPA study is remarkable because it shows that public perceptions about Iraq, or at least about the threat it posed before the US invasion, are lagging far behind what acknowledged experts have themselves concluded and whose findings have been reported in the mass media.
Virtually all independent experts and even senior administration officials have concluded since the war that ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda before the war were virtually non- existent, and even Bush himself has explicitly dismissed the notion that Baghdad had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.
Yet the March poll found that 20 per cent of respondents believe that Iraq was directly involved in the attacks - the same percentage as on the eve of the war, in February 2003.
Similarly, the percentages of those who believe Iraq provided "substantial support" to Al Qaeda (37 per cent) and those who believe contacts were minimal (29 per cent) are also virtually unchanged from 13 months before. As of March 2004, 11 per cent said there was "no connection at all", up four per cent from February 2003.
Some - but surprisingly little - change was found in answers to whether Washington had found concrete evidence since the war that substantiated a Saddam-Al Qaeda link. Thus, in June 2003, 52 per cent of respondents said evidence had been found, while only 45 per cent said so last month.
As to WMD, about which there has been significantly more media coverage, 60 per cent of respondents said Iraq either had actual WMD (38 per cent) or had a major programme for developing them (22 per cent).
In contrast, 39 per cent said Baghdad had limited WMD-related activities that fell short of an active programme - what Kay as the CIA's main weapons inspector concluded in February - or no activities at all.
Moreover, the message conveyed by Kay and other experts appears not to be getting through to the public, adds the survey, which found a whopping 82 per cent of respondents saying either, "experts mostly agree Iraq was providing substantial support to Al Qaeda" (47 per cent) or, "experts are evenly divided on the question" (35 per cent).
Only 15 per cent said it was their impression that "experts mostly agree (that) Iraq was not providing substantial support to Al Qaeda". There was similar confusion with respect to the WMD question: despite all the publicity given Kay's, Blix's, and the findings of other independent experts that Iraq did not have WMD before the war, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believed that most experts said it did have them (30 per cent) or that experts were evenly divided on the issue (35 per cent).
The poll found a high correlation between beliefs about pre-war Iraq with support for going to war with Iraq and for the intentions to vote for Bush in November. Among those who perceived experts as saying Iraq had WMD, 72 per cent said they would vote for Bush, and 23 per cent said they would vote for Kerry, while among those who perceived the experts as concluding that Iraq did not have WMD, 23 per cent said they would vote for Bush and 74 per cent for Kerry.
The opinion of experts was found to be very important in predicting support for Bush or Kerry, as well as support for the war itself, according to Kull. While 38 per cent of a discrete sample within the survey said they believed that Iraq had WMD before the war, the percentage dropped to 21 per cent after they were informed later in the questionnaire that Kay had concluded that Baghdad was engaged only in minor activities for developing WMD.
Confusion over what the experts are saying, according to Kull, could be due to a number of factors, including the repetition by Bush (most recently in his press conference last week) and other senior officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, that Iraq had once used WMD, and the fact that in the electronic mass media, in particular, Iraq is still discussed in the context of the "war on terror".
In another misperception, 59 per cent of the public believed that world public opinion either favoured Washington going to war (21 per cent) or believed that global views were "evenly balanced" (38 per cent). Only 41 per cent appeared aware that a majority of world public opinion opposed the US-led war.
Those who were aware or made aware that world opinion opposed the war were more likely to think the decision to attack Iraq was wrong and less likely to support Bush. Those who believed, on the other hand, that world opinion supported the war were substantially more likely to support Bush and think that going to war was correct. -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service.