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WASHINGTON - People with friends or relatives serving in Iraq are more likely than others to have a positive view of a generally unpopular war, an AP-Ipsos poll found.

Some of those surveyed said their relationships with troops helped them learn more about what's going on in Iraq beyond the violence. Others said their opinions of the war were shaped by a sense of loyalty to those in harm's way.

A solid majority of those who did not know anyone in Iraq said they thought the war was a mistake, 61 percent, compared to 36 percent who thought it was the right decision. Those who had a relative or friend there were almost evenly split, 49 percent right decision, 47 percent mistake.

After Ted Chittum of Bourbon, Ind., had a chance to talk at length with his cousin who served in Iraq, he said he got a different picture of what was going on in the country.

"He talked about all the good things that are going on," said Chittum, a school superintendent and a political independent who supports the war effort. "Schools are opening up. The people are friendly, wanting our help. You get a whole different spin from what you get on television."

Those who know someone serving in Iraq were more likely to approve of the Bush administration's conduct of the war - 44 percent, compared to 37 percent overall.

"From most of the information I get, the people over there fighting basically are proud to be there and feel they're doing something good," said Sally Dowling, a bank employee from Mesa, Ariz., who said her boss's son is serving in Iraq. "That brings it home more than if I didn't know anybody."

With the U.S. death toll in Iraq climbing past 1,870 with an especially bloody August, the public's opinion of the Bush administration's handling of the war has been eroding over the past two years.

Overall attitudes about the war - while negative - haven't changed dramatically through the summer. A solid majority, 60 percent, want U.S. troops to stick it out until Iraq is stable.

The poll found that 58 percent of people disapprove of the Bush administration's conduct of the war and consider it a mistake. Half believe the war increases the threat of terrorism. Democrats overwhelmingly question the president's policies, while Republicans overwhelmingly support them.

Among the strongest supporters of President Bush's handling of the war were Republicans and evangelicals, men and especially suburban men. Those most likely to feel the Iraq war was the right decision were whites, especially younger whites, those with some college or a college degree, Southerners, suburbanites, Protestants and Republicans.

An overwhelming number of people say critics of the Iraq war should be free to voice their objections. Nearly three weeks after a grieving California mother named Cindy Sheehan started her anti-war protest near Bush's Texas ranch, nine of 10 people surveyed in the AP-Ipsos poll say it's OK for war opponents to share publicly their concerns about the conflict.

The poll found that Republicans are the most likely to disapprove of people voicing opposition to the war.

Retiree Ruth Carver of Sellersburg, Ind., said she disagrees with Sheehan's protest. "I think her son would be ashamed of her," said Carver, a Republican.

More than half of those polled, 53 percent, say the United States erred by going to war in Iraq. Various polls show public opinion turning against the Iraq war more quickly than it did during the Vietnam conflict in the late 1960s.

"Our attention span is simply shorter," said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Our willingness to put up with a difficult military situation and losses isn't what it used to be."

Six in 10 in the poll support keeping troops in Iraq until a stable government is formed, a process mired in crafting a constitution acceptable to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Vivian Snyder, a Republican from Staten Island, N.Y., said she disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq, but she doesn't want troops to leave yet. "Otherwise, it's all for nothing," she said.

The poll of 1,001 adults was conducted Aug. 22-24 by Ipsos, an international polling firm. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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