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Supporters of war make their voices heard in Md.

The Baltimore Sun

Four years into the war, about 90 million Americans remain committed to the combat mission in Iraq, a significant proportion of the population whose views are being overshadowed by the growing push to bring the troops home.

While they no longer constitute a majority, supporters of the war are convinced that the United States has an important task to complete even if the end is nowhere in sight.

In dozens of interviews across Maryland in recent days, those who favor the war said the risks of leaving Iraq outweigh those of pressing ahead.

"I don't think it helps America's image in that region of the world if we keep jumping in and jumping out," said Chris Plassman, 42, of Finksburg, who works for a defense contractor and is keenly aware that his is now the minority view. U.S. forces should not leave Iraq "without a better conclusion in place."

But he conceded, "To arrive at that conclusion is a cost that the majority of American people don't feel willing to pay."

When President Bush announced the start of the Iraq invasion four years ago tonight, more than 70 percent of American adults thought the course was correct. But as sectarian violence divides Iraq and progress stagnates, that has shrunk to about 40 percent, according to surveys this month by The New York Times and by the Pew Research Center in February.

As their ranks dwindle, war supporters are receiving less attention from the news media as well as from many political leaders trying to tap anti-Bush administration sentiments as the 2008 election draws nearer.

"Look, I think the American people are done with Iraq," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat running for president, said last week.

Yet even in Maryland, among the nation's more liberal states, supporters of military action are not hard to find. Their numbers are greatest, interviews and opinion polls indicate, in small towns and rural areas away from Baltimore and Washington.

But in urban neighborhoods and suburbs, backers of the war continue to make their voices heard. Many have children or relatives in the military, or are retired from the armed services. Others are employed by companies with close ties to the military establishment, a sizable group in Maryland because of the proximity to Washington.

"Public opinion about the war is very much organized around people's political self-identity and their support of President Bush," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking war attitudes for four years. "Bush and the war are basically intertwined in the mind of the public."

The White House issued a fourth anniversary "fact sheet" that called for "patience and determination" while insisting that Iraqis "are beginning to meet benchmarks to achieve political reconciliation."

Supporters of the war acknowledge that its planning has gone badly, Sun interviews show. Many are troubled by images of wounded soldiers - some of them middle-aged reservists and National Guard troops torn from their families and careers - returning to lives different from the ones they left behind.

Supporters say that slanted reports in the news media and a steady drumbeat of ill-informed criticism are swaying public opinion on the war, though their arguments seem devoid of bitterness or self-righteousness.

"I shudder to think what would have happened if we had had the media coverage of today during World War II," said Donald Hoffman, 61, a retired Baltimore teacher who lives in Carroll County. "How would people have reacted to the horror of the storming of Normandy?"

For Ronald R. Colunga, 54, director of business development for an international aerospace company, the war effort has deep meaning.

"I believe this country could not sustain its moral fiber if we pulled out," said Colunga, a former Air Force colonel who lives in Hagerstown. "I don't believe we have the wrong approach, because the Iraqi people want to be free to govern themselves. And I believe, within their borders, they can."

Colunga was one of several who expressed dismay at the relatively low U.S. troop level in Iraq. They said the pre-invasion recommendation of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army's chief of staff, that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to pacify Iraq after the early rounds of combat should have been followed.

"There are some days I wake up and say, 'We're doing the right thing,'" said Kathy Howell, 43, a veterinary technician who recently became a stay-at-home mom. But she said that when she sees television reports of soldiers with brain injuries or missing limbs, "it breaks my heart."

Howell would like to see military operations coupled with an approach that recognizes cultural differences.

"We're fighting countries that have been fighting since the beginning of time," the Hagerstown resident said. "The U.S. wants to go in and impress an American style of life, and I don't know if that's the right approach."

Still, living along a flight path to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains provides a continual reminder of the events of Sept. 11 and the need to fight terrorism, she said. "My feeling was, 'We didn't have much of a choice'" about going to war.

April Rose, 38, who sells real estate and runs an auto glass business with her husband in Westminster, is active in Carroll County Republican circles and is a strong Bush supporter. She said public opinion is distorted by the news media, which make "more of an effort to show the bad side."

Having Saddam Hussein out of power is a good thing, she said. Though no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, she said, "I still wonder if they were moved before we got there."

Rose, like all of those interviewed, said she did not know what would justify an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

"That's for someone much wiser and in the know than me," said Bruce Rohrbacher, 85, a retired management consultant and World Bank employee who lives in Chestertown.

A war must be fought against religious extremists in the Middle East, said Bill Finch, 76, who still works at the Carroll County farm equipment business that he sold to his sons. To him, it's just a question of when.

"In my heart-of-hearts talk with myself, I do believe there is a real terrorism threat," said Finch, adding that Iran and Syria are as dangerous as Iraq and that he expects military intervention in those countries as well.

"The sooner we fight this battle, the better off we are going to be," he said. "It is a lot easier to do it now than in 10 or 15 or 20 years down the road."

Greg Moore, 61, explained his respect for the armed forces leadership as he walked his dog in Hagerstown on a recent warm evening.

"I'm retired military, so I support the commander in chief," said Moore, who spent eight years on active duty during the Vietnam War and later was a civilian facilities engineer for the Army. Today, he said, there is more disclosure and discussion of tactics and strategy, which leads to criticism from many with incomplete information and insufficient knowledge.

"While Bush does not appear to be very popular, he is still the commander in chief and far more knowledgeable than the second-guessers," Moore said.

"I don't think there's any choice but to be there," he said. "We started it. Now we have to finish it."

Roberta Smithurst, a customer service representative for the local newspaper in Elkton, said she continues to support the war because "I have faith and trust in my government." She adds quickly: "Maybe it's a little misplaced."

Still, she said, she is frustrated that the United States does not seem to have the upper hand in the conflict. "We're playing on their turf, and we're letting them dictate our policy."

Smithurst, a 69-year-old widow whose husband used to boast that his company made cables that helped hold up the World Trade Center in New York, does not like seeing older soldiers fighting.

But from what she can tell, she said, wounded troops returning home seem more committed to the cause than the war critics whose views are now resonating the loudest.

"People who have lost parts of their bodies aren't as bitter as the people here," she said.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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