With U.S. troops heading for the Persian Gulf, Americans say in overwhelming numbers that they oppose unilateral U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, according to a national Knight Ridder poll.
A robust majority of Americans - 83 percent - would support going to war if the United Nations backed the action and it was carried out by a multinational coalition. But without U.N. approval and allies, only about a third of the public would support a war with Iraq.
The poll highlights the Bush administration's political and diplomatic quandary.
Unambiguous evidence that Iraq has nuclear, biological or chemical weapons is a key requirement for the broad international support that Americans crave. Yet a majority of poll respondents, while convinced that Iraq harbors such weapons, said they doubted U.N. inspectors would find them.
Many survey respondents said President Bush had not effectively explained why military action might be required. Nearly 1 in 5 said they still did not believe that Iraq posed a serious threat to the United States.
"We have been given no compelling reasons for going to war," said Bill Quarton, 52, of Ann Arbor, Mich., who was among the poll respondents who said they were opposed to unilateral U.S. action against Iraq.
"Our government acts as if it knows something terribly important and we should go ahead with this, but we haven't seen anything to substantiate it. The whole scenario makes me very uncomfortable."
The survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates questioned 1,204 American adults Jan. 3-6, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Asked to rank the various threats facing the United States, more than twice as many respondents (49 percent of the total) chose al-Qaida as the greatest peril as chose Iraq. A similar margin thinks that dealing with al-Qaida should be the nation's top foreign-policy priority.
With war possibly only weeks away and another crisis brewing with North Korea, the survey found that Americans exhibit considerable uncertainty and ambivalence about world affairs.
Among other things, they are evenly divided about the president's effectiveness in explaining what's at stake in Iraq and why U.S. military force might be employed.
Forty-eight percent said he had not clearly explained his rationale for a war against Iraq; 46 percent think he has.
The result shows some slippage for the president since September, when other polls asked a similar question. Then, 52 percent thought the president had clearly explained his position; 37 percent disagreed.
"He's the best," said Jose Velez, 25, of Lehighton, Pa., near Allentown. "After Sept. 11, President Bush didn't take any chances, and this is part of that."
Dan Yeager, 24, of Grand Ledge, Mich., saw it differently.
"I think going after Iraq is just for Bush's own popularity and to finish off his father's work," Yeager said. "He's not clear about why he wants to go to war. I think he just wants to do it and he's just saying, `Back me.' "
Yeager and many other Americans also remain worried about the economy.
As a group, the survey's respondents were evenly split when asked whether foreign threats or the economy should be the administration's top priority.
"We're going to spend a lot of money sending all these troops to Iraq and right now we have a problem of our own with the economy," said Lydia Sepulveda, 41, of Weston, Fla., outside Miami. "A lot of people are without work."
Still, the 27 percent who thought Iraq should be the most important foreign policy priority were more likely than others to want the White House to devote most of its time to that overseas crisis rather than the economy. Fifty-two percent of those people felt that way.
Respondents who thought that al-Qaida or North Korea should be the top foreign policy priority were more likely to say the White House should focus first on fixing the economy at home. Only 42 percent in each case thought the top foreign priority should take precedence over the economy.
When it comes to North Korea, a majority thinks the United States is imperiled by that enigmatic, hard-line regime and that America should maintain or enhance its military presence in South Korea. But there is little support for U.S. military action against North Korea, a nation believed to possess nuclear weapons.
Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed said the issue should be resolved diplomatically; only 15 percent said the United States should prepare to take immediate military action against North Korea.
"I'm a war veteran, and I don't believe in going to war over other people's problems," said Robert Wilkinson, 75, of Ojai, Calif., near Ventura. He is a veteran of World War II.
Returning to the Iraqi crisis, a commanding 91 percent of those surveyed believe that Saddam Hussein is concealing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Sixty-five percent think U.N. inspectors aren't likely to find those weapons.
If war proves necessary, Americans seem willing to tolerate a long military presence in Iraq. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed said they would support eventual military action even if it required U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for five years.
The survey also demonstrated that many Americans remain altruistic and idealistic. They worry that the Iraqi crisis could mark a fundamental shift in American attitudes toward war.
Two-thirds of the respondents said Saddam's record of using chemical or biological weapons against his own people provided a good reason for going to war, the same number that cited American self-defense against a terrorist attack.
Forty-six percent of those surveyed said the possibility of a high casualty rate among Iraqi civilians was a good reason not to go to war.
The nation is evenly divided over the Bush administration's advocacy of pre-emptive strikes, those that are launched before an enemy attacks U.S. interests at home or abroad. Forty-three percent say the policy violates American ideals and could establish a dangerous precedent.
"We should be the country that sets the standards," Quarton said. "This amounts to punishing the criminal before the crime is committed."
Forty-five percent support pre-emptive strikes.
"If somebody says he's going to kill me, am I going to wait until he does?" Velez said. "There have been a lot of threats. How many people have to die over here before we do what we have to do?"
As one might expect, support for war among Democrats and independents is much more conditional than support among Republicans.
While Republicans widely endorse the policy of pre-emptive strikes and would support war with Iraq with less than the full support of our allies, Democrats and independents tend to see pre-emptive strikes as bad policy and make their support for war contingent on U.N. backing.
Many Americans are willing to support the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary, but an equal number remains extremely discomforted by that concept.
Forty-six percent would approve of a U.S. nuclear response if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons; 45 percent would not want the Pentagon to respond with nuclear bombs.
Asked if Israel would be justified in responding with nuclear devices to an Iraqi chemical or biological attack, Americans felt quite differently. Sixty percent said Israel would be justified; 30 percent disagreed.
"It would be a grave error," Quarton said about the use of nuclear devices under any circumstances. "Two wrongs do not make a right. It would poison a large part of the world. It would create hatreds that might take centuries to resolve."
The survey also suggested that the factual underpinnings of many of the nation's opinions are shaky.
Nearly 1 in 4 respondents thinks the Bush administration has publicly released evidence tying Iraq to the planning and funding of the Sept. 11 attacks, and more than 1 in 3 respondents didn't know or refused to answer.
No such evidence has been released.