A large majority of Americans believe that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should not resign over the Iraq prison scandal, but the public remains divided over whether the administration moved quickly enough to investigate reports of abuse, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Seven in 10 Americans said Rumsfeld should not be forced to quit, a view held by majorities of Republicans, Democrats and self-described independents.
The survey comes a day after President Bush gave Rumsfeld a vote of confidence, and as Rumsfeld faced stiff questioning by members of Congress enraged that they were kept in the dark about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
As details continue to emerge, the survey found that public opinion on the way Bush is handling the scandal is sharply divided and deeply partisan but not yet fully formed. Fewer than half of respondents -- 48 percent -- said they approved of the way the president is dealing with the issue, while 35 percent disapproved. But 17 percent are undecided, a clear indication that many Americans are waiting for more information.
Taken together, the poll findings suggest that the prisoner abuse scandal has become another major unwelcome surprise in Iraq, further broadening the partisan divide over the conflict and raising new doubts about the way the administration has managed the aftermath of the war.
But there was no clear indication that the scandal has significantly affected the public's overall attitudes toward the war, which have become more negative since the first of the year as the military situation has grown increasingly violent and unstable.
About half of the country continued to say the war was "worth fighting," while nearly as many disagreed. Six in 10 said the U.S.-led coalition is bogged down in Iraq, unchanged from a Post-ABC News survey three weeks ago.
Parties agree on seriousness of allegations
Even though overall attitudes remain essentially unchanged, the proportion who believe the administration has a clear plan in Iraq stands at 38 percent, down 7 percentage points in the past three weeks, while a growing majority -- 57 percent -- see the administration adrift, a new high in Post-ABC News polling.
No consensus has emerged over the way the Bush administration handled reports of abuse before the scandal broke in the media last week. Four in 10 faulted the administration for failing to move quickly enough to investigate the reports, while an identical proportion disagreed.
Americans also are split on whether the administration made a good-faith effort to probe claims of abuse. Slightly more than four in 10 said the administration was seriously investigating the incidents before they were made public -- but just as many said officials were trying to "cover it up."
A total of 802 randomly selected adults were interviewed Wednesday and Thursday for this survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Americans have recoiled in disgust over the graphic photos that appear to document physical abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel. Seven in 10 said the reports were "a big deal" and about half said they were either "upset" or "angry" about them.
Two-thirds said the soldiers involved should be charged with a crime. A slight majority also believed higher-level officers should be held responsible for allowing a breakdown in training and discipline.
Still, six in 10 believe these were isolated incidents, while fewer than a third said such abuse was more widespread.
Despite the increasingly partisan cast of opinion on Iraq, Republicans and Democrats largely agreed on the seriousness of the allegations. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents agreed that the kind of abuse documented in photographs is unacceptable, even in time of war. Similar percentages in each group said they were disturbed by the reports.
When it came to Bush and his role in the controversy, however, bipartisan agreement vanished. Roughly six in 10 Democrats said the administration moved too slowly in investigating the reports and mainly tried to cover up the scandal. At the same time, an even larger proportion of Republicans -- about seven in 10 -- said the administration acted quickly and was making a genuine effort to investigate the problem. Independents roughly split on both issues.
Neither have the two parties drawn any closer in their views of the bigger picture in Iraq. The large majority of Republicans continue to say that the war is worth fighting and the United States is making good progress, while the large majority of Democrats said the war is not worth the costs and worry that the United States is getting bogged down.